On March 9, 1995, Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro joins with Governor Mike Lowry to launch a "Free Lolita!" campaign. Lolita, a killer whale, or orca, has been held in captivity since August 8, 1970, when she was taken from Penn Cove off Whidbey Island and later sold to Miami Seaquarium. The Center for Whale Research in the San Juan Islands sets a fundraising goal of $2 million to bring Lolita back from Florida to live out the rest of her days in her native waters. Yet despite ongoing protests by activists and several lawsuits, Lolita will continue to reside at Miami Seaquarium more than 50 years after she was rounded up, captured, and sold.
"It was Gruesome"
Growing up on Bainbridge Island, Ralph Munro (b. 1943) saw first-hand Puget Sound's marine environment. Munro, who served as Washington Secretary of State from 1980 to 2001, championed many social and educational causes, ranging from volunteerism, to equal rights for the disabled, to historic preservation. A 1966 graduate of Western Washington State College (now University) in Bellingham, he was appointed assistant to Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) in 1968, first serving on a committee to study volunteerism in Washington and then becoming the governor's special assistant on education and social services issues. He was elected secretary of state for five consecutive terms.
In March 1976, as Munro and his wife Karen were sailing north of Olympia, they saw a group of orcas being chased by powerboats and aircraft, and being herded with explosives. They learned the round-up was commissioned by Sea World, which was looking to expand its collection of marine mammals in captivity. Recalled Ralph Munro, "It was gruesome. And they were going to take that whale out of Puget Sound and put it into a swimming pool somewhere. I had the feeling enough was enough" ("We Are Puget Sound").
Governor Evans was on a spring ski trip but Munro was so stunned by what he saw that he did not feel the issue could wait. He placed a call to Washington Attorney General Slade Gorton (1928-2020) and asked if his legal team could file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. Later in 1976, the district court in Seattle ordered Sea World to give up its permit to collect killer whales. No more whales would be captured for sale in U.S. waters.
Six years before the federal ban went into effect, there was a massive roundup of orcas at Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. On August 8, 1970, as many as 90 orcas, including members of all three Southern Resident pods (J, K, and L), were rounded up and herded into nets. Five whales drowned during the capture, and as many as seven others were sold to marine parks around the world. A young orca named Lolita was among those captured. She was sent to Miami Seaquarium in Florida.
Nearly 25 years later, Ralph and Karen Munro and Washington Governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017) began a bid to rescue Lolita. Lowry held a news conference and called upon Miami Seaquarium to release Lolita and return her to her home in Puget Sound. By that point, Lolita was the last surviving orca from the roundup at Penn Cove. Lowry's campaign was matched on the East Coast by the efforts of media mogul Jerry Powers (1946?-2020), a Miami Beach socialite and publisher of a Florida magazine called Ocean Drive. Powers was willing to lease billboards and 100 bus benches around Miami to encourage residents and tourists to boycott the marine park where Lolita was on display.
Munro and Lowry were inspired by the popular film "Free Willy," released in 1993. Calling their campaign Free Lolita!, they sought to raise visibility as well as funds to bring Lolita back to the Northwest. They even hoped an IMAX movie might be in the offing. At the news conference, Lowry said he wanted Lolita to return home and retire as a citizen of Washington. But Miami Seaquarium was having none of it. "Seaquarium officials scoffed at the 'interested outsiders' who think they know best. Lolita is not, and never will be, for sale at any price. Any funds collected for the purpose of purchasing Lolita would be collected under false pretenses,' said a news release from the marine park, which gets about 650,000 visitors a year" ("Supporters Want to Free Lolita …").
The Center for Whale Research in the San Juan Islands launched a fundraising campaign to raise $2 million to bring Lolita home. Scientists were hopeful that Lolita could be reunited with her family group to live out her days, though they were unsure if the orca, gone for more than two decades, would be accepted. In 2003, a documentary about Lolita played in film festivals around the country, raising awareness about her, and in 2008, celebrities from Harrison Ford to Elton John lent their names to a "Free Lolita" campaign.
In 2018, a federal appeals court rejected a petition to reopen a lawsuit over Miami Seaquarium's treatment of the killer whale and suggested there was no realistic way to return Lolita without significant harm to the animal. As of 2021, Lolita remained in captivity in Miami.
Meanwhile, members of the Lummi Nation said in August 2020 they would sue Miami Seaquarium to return Lolita, whom they call Tokitae and regard as a member of their family. "Because she is their relative, they will never give up on her, or be discouraged," said Lummi Tribal member and elder Raynell Morris, who was working on the quest to bring her home ("Taken From Her Pod ...").
In Florida, "the Miami Seaquarium maintains she is better off where she is. 'We have provided and cared for Lolita for five decades, [Robert Rose, curator emeritus] wrote in the email. 'She is a remarkable animal and we are devoted to her. Her longevity is a testament to the excellent care she receives daily from our animal and veterinary care staff'" ("Taken From Her Pod …").
Miami Seaquarium was closed for most of 2020 because of the pandemic. As of September 2020, the number of orcas in the Southern Resident pod was 74. Their number continued to dwindle due to decreasing salmon stocks, vessel noise, and pollution.