My husband proposed to me on a birthday trip to the aquarium. His birthday, to be exact. Moments after proclaiming- “Of course I’ll marry you!”- we were walking through tunnels, a few inches of glass separating us and gallons upon gallons of water. Fitting surroundings for the float-y feelings I was experiencing. I’ll never forget how the blue light from the tanks cast a soft glow over my husband’s smiling face.
So, this Valentine’s Day, I decided to go “experiences over stuff” and tucked a little note in with his card promising a newly-married aquarium excursion. It seemed more than appropriate given our history and the fact that he works on his own tanks in the evenings after work — constructing beautiful aquascapes for little sea friends to swim around in and reading books on how to be the best amateur aquarist around.
This is all to say, my BAE loves him some sea creatures…and the magical places that hold mass quantities of them hold a special place in my heart, too!
Full disclosure before we get any further: I remembered my husband mentioning, before we moved to Miami, that he thought the aquarium here had orcas, a potential deal-breaker for us to ever visit.
You see, like just about everyone else in the world who saw the film, Blackfish shook me to my core. It convinced me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that orca whales do NOT belong in captivity. They have families. With special whale languages(!). They swim tremendous distances. Why would we pluck them out of the sea, stick them in a tiny tank with strangers they can’t communicate with, and *wam-bam* that’s the rest of their lives?!
After seeing this movie, I started many conversations (with unassuming friends and family) with, “How many trainers do you think have to die before Seaworld realizes killer whales are just that? Killer. Whales.” (I can be a bit extra sometimes.)
I cautiously turned to Google, which revealed: the Miami Seaquarium houses one orca whale. A female named Lolita.
Buuuut I wanted to have an adventure at an aquarium, *said in my whiniest “I-want-things-MY-way” voice*, because my husband loves aquariums and I love my husband. Ignorance is bliss, right? Surely a killer whale in an aquarium is better than a killer whale at Seaworld. Maybe she’ll have a carefully curated living space. (Like the smaller sea creatures do.) Maybe her presence is more for educational purposes and less for entertainment wow-factor. These were my excuses.
When hubby’s Spring Break hit, we headed to the aquarium, turning a blind eye (for the time being) to Lolita’s existence.
All told, we had a blast exploring the exhibits at Miami Seaquarium. Any day I get to spend experiencing something new with the one I love is a good day. But, as you may have guessed, this is where the story becomes more about the whale. Even in the midst of the greatest love stories you can still feel your heart break. And that day, with all the love I felt for this man by my side, my heart broke for the whale.
I’ll back up a bit. My naive assumption that Lolita would be living a simple life, available for casual viewing? Not so correct. Instead, twice a day, the gates are rolled up on the entrance to her aquatic arena.
We strolled in for her afternoon performance and chose a seat in the stands. She was already in view, head bobbing just above the surface.
I casually assumed that this must be her “performance space” and that she probably had some other enclosure where she lived the rest of the time. But, as we waited for the show to begin, I realized the logistics of that were unlikely.
“Does she live here? All the time?” I asked Chet.
“I think so,” he gently responded.
Lolita was the star of the show. Along with two Pacific White Sided Dolphins and three wetsuit-clad trainers, she showcased a variety of tricks. And I’m not gonna lie…seeing a 7,000 pound animal flying out of the water like that was majestic AF. Yes, I took pictures. Yes, I oooh’d and aaaah’d and clapped in dumbfounded amazement. But I also listened…and what I heard disturbed me…
The show’s rhetoric was interesting and careful. It painted the ocean as a scary, dangerous place for whales to live. Whales out there (you know…in their natural habitat) were riddled with pollution and had laughable life expectancies. Lolita, in comparison, is HEALTHY, healthy, healthy. Seriously, they used the word “healthy” to describe her about 42 times. By the end I was like, “ok, ok, I get it. She’s super lucky to live in this tiny tank with humans who love her!”
But is she? Here’s her story and you can decide for yourself:
Lolita was captured off the coast of Washington state in 1970 and sold to the Miami Seaquarium for $20,000. She joined another orca, a juvenile male named Hugo, who was captured two years prior. Luckily, Hugo was a member of her natural community of Southern Resident Orcas and they got along great! Although they mated many times over the years (at one point they were going for it so hard that shows had to be cancelled!), they never produced any offspring. In 1980, Hugo died of a brain aneurism likely caused from his habit of bashing his head against the sides of the tank. Since the death of her companion, Lolita has had no other interactions with her own species.
So I guess you’re wondering, would I ever return to the Seaquarium? Knowing what I know now? Probably not. Do I regret going? Well, that’s tough. I’m grateful for every piece of my love story–even the bits that aren’t so beautiful. Even the chapters that involve falling in love with an orca. And even the parts where I have to admit to my readers that yes, I paid money to see a killer whale in captivity.
Lolita is part of my story now, so I’m all the more invested in securing her a “Happily Ever After.” Luckily, activists at Orca Conservancy are hard at work on a translocation and reintroduction plan. I will do everything in my power to help them.
Starting with donating the amount our tickets cost, and telling you this —
The Southern Resident Orcas, the community to which Lolita belongs, is one of the best known and studied marine populations in the world. Returning Lolita to her natal-pod (known as “L-pod”) within this community could secure her happy ending. Although she has lived for over forty years in the smallest killer whale tank in the United States(!), she is in remarkable condition. This, coupled with the fact that she still vocalizes in the calls used exclusively by her pod, makes her an ideal candidate for reintegrating into the wild population. While she could not boost the endangered orca population directly (Lolita is no longer of breeding age), another healthy female introduced to a matrilineal population would go a long way in making sure young orcas, the care of which is usually a shared responsibility, are reared to adulthood.
Lolita’s “Happily Ever After” hangs in the balance. She’ll have to capture a few more hearts, maybe breaking a few in the process. Scientists believe her mother still swims off the shore of Washington state. I hope for their happy reunion.
As for me and my husband, we have it easier. Our “Happily Ever After” is up to us. Up to us to go on adventures together and learn lots. To shape and shift our view of the world in the process. To love each other hard. Even when our hearts break over things we think we can’t change.
…And to write them into our love story because we still want to try.