Make the Light Last: Lolita the Orca 

By: Emily Goldberg  |  September 20, 2023

By Emily Goldberg, Publication Manager and Layout Editor

If you check the news regularly, you may have stumbled upon a story many weeks ago about an orca whale that died at the Miami Seaquarium. The Orca’s name was Lolita, but she was also referred to as Tokitae, or Toki for short. Her sudden death reminds us of how often, when animals die in captivity, the cause frequently correlates to the pressures put on them by the institutions holding them captive. However, even if you subscribe to various news sites that flood your phone with constant notifications at every hour, you still might have overlooked this story entirely. That is because it popped up on the news like a flash of bright light. One instant it made headlines and then it was gone. It vanished as if it had never even been there at all, and was lost amongst the rush and chaos that is the world of modern day news. Often in situations like this, once a story is removed from the news, it is easy to miss the lessons that one can derive from it. 

Many fail to realize that precisely this pattern of behavior allows institutions such as the Miami Seaquarium, SeaWorld, Marineland, and others like them, to quietly evade the deserved consequences of their harmful actions. It’s very tempting to turn a blind eye to these cases, but in doing so, animals remain captive and continue to suffer. Only when it is too late, and an orca whale dies in captivity, do cases like Lolita’s actually strike us. And even still, we fail to hold on to those flashes of bright light and utilize them to make a lasting change. 

According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation website, on August 8th, 1970, Lolita was one of many orca whales captured near Penn Cove, Washington. The word “captured” does not even begin to describe or illustrate the horrific scene that occurred on that dreadful day many years ago. Simply watching the video of Lolita’s capture is heartbreaking. Imagine being at the scene as it occurred. Or participating in it. 

As the orcas are hunted down and rounded up, they appear distressed as they search for a means of escape. Listening to the screeches of the mother orcas as their children are forcefully ripped away from their sides is excruciatingly painful and rings endlessly in one’s ears. As the pod of orcas is broken apart, individual whales are wrapped in netting, yanked out of the water, and hoarded away while their family watches helplessly. Other pod members who are not trapped in the net attempt to liberate their fellow orcas, but are unsuccessful in rescuing them. The scene of the remaining orcas mourning the whales who were taken away, who they will never see again, is saddening and sorrowful. 

Lolita was held captive for fifty three years until she unexpectedly died on August 18th, 2023, ten days after the anniversary of her capture. What makes this story even more devastating is that Lolita was destined to return to her home before her sudden death. According to articles published on the CTV News and CBS News websites, in March 2023, the Miami Seaquarium announced that they would move Lolita to a seaside sanctuary to live out the rest of her life in her natural waters. In those few celebratory moments, Lolita’s long awaited homecoming seemed so close, yet, in reality, it was so far away. 

Lolita’s story is even more frustrating with the recognition that advocacy groups have been lobbying against entertainment venues such as SeaWorld, and advocating for the rightful treatment and release of captive animals for decades. Challenging these institutions to engage in quality improvement comes with the responsibility of pressuring them to implement constant and continuous changes for the betterment of the animals. Therefore, jumping to celebrate Lolita’s eventual return to her natural habitat may have been premature. Her sudden death reminds us that in her case, we were too late. This raises the question: what took Miami Seaquarium so long to allow Lolita her right of return to her home? Why is it taking these institutions an enormous amount of time to implement changes to improve the lives of the animals residing within them? 

Moreover, Seaworld has announced that it will no longer hold orcas in captivity once the remaining orcas in their park pass away. Although this is the case, we must not allow this campaign to overshadow the harm they cause all the many other animals in their parks. In order to ensure that the animals in these institutions are being treated properly, institutions like SeaWorld must be pressured to make immediate changes for all their animals. Lolita’s death must not be forgotten. It should be used to spark a new wave of advocacy for real change within these institutions by implementing frequent and prompt responses to all issues within their parks. 

It would be a shame if Lolita’s story became just another headline. Her narrative can be used to implement persistent revisions to SeaWorld if we choose to grasp the opportunities that it has presented us with. We must hold on to this glimmer of hope, especially for the wellbeing of these animals. We must not allow these newfound recognitions brought about by Lolita’s narrative to slip away just like any other breaking news story. We must hold on to them and keep them at the forefront of our minds. Most importantly, however, we must utilize them to make a lasting change, not only at SeaWorld, but also beyond. 

The next time you visit a place like SeaWorld, be more aware, not only of how the park is treating their animals, but also of how those animals got there in the first place. By avoiding passivity and being intentionally reflective, we can all start to make a difference.