In the last few days we have witnessed a sequence of triumphalist headlines in the media announcing that Lolita (the orca at the Miami Sea Aquarium) will be released back into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It seems that some associations want to make the public think that a group of excited orcas will be waiting for Lolita’s arrival at sea, and all together they will swim happily as the sun sets behind the horizon line. In the course of this article, it will be explained why this transfer, rather than a liberation, is an act of enormous irresponsibility, which will mean a notable deterioration in her life quality and that, in the worst case scenario, will lead to a fatal outcome.
Unfortunately, nature is not a movie where a scriptwriter invents a happy ending to suit the wishes and desires of the viewers. And if anyone has any doubt that nature is not like that, just read Marc A. Simmons’ book “Killing Keiko”, which recounts in great detail the disastrous release of the killer whale Keiko (the protagonist of Free Willy) who ended up dying of pneumonia in a Norwegian fjord, after becoming a floating toy for children begging for fish from the boats in the area. A terrible and perfectly avoidable death if the authorities had listened to the experts and not to the unfounded proclamations of activists, who once again demonstrated their lack of knowledge about the health of cetaceans. Of course, the reality of returning a killer whale to the sea is very different from Hollywood scripts.
This unrealistic image of nature comes from the simplistic and naive view of organisations such as Friends of Lolita, or the millionaire owner of an American football team who will apparently fund the 20 million needed for this supposed “reintroduction” that will never happen. They certainly don’t have the slightest experience of what it means to care for an animal, let alone prepare it for a return to the wild. The scientific knowledge does not currently exist to return a killer whale to the sea, and in any case, in order to survive, it would need to be accepted by a group of wild killer whales. They would have us believe that this would be a simple matter, but the truth is that in Keiko’s case all she received from the wild orcas was threatening behaviour. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of animals knows that it is extraordinarily difficult to integrate an individual into a stable social group. And if it is difficult with animals under human care, it is almost impossible with wild animals, which we cannot influence. It is obvious that Lolita can never be released, and when that becomes obvious to everyone, and they can no longer deceive the public, they will try to convince us that the best thing for her is to retire to a marine rescue center.
But there is no sea pen for killer whales, not in the Pacific Ocean, nor in any other sea or ocean on the planet. The closest thing to a rescue center for cetaceans is the one built by Merlin Entertainment in the Westman Islands, south of Iceland (right next to an industrial port that they always forget to mention in their advertising). A rescue center that is currently empty, despite the arrival in June 2019 of two beluga whales brought from Shanghai in what was heralded by Merlin as “a new era in the keeping of cetaceans under human care”. It should be noted that the location of these facilities was far from ideal, the cetaceans were exposed to heavy boat traffic just a few metres in and out of the industrial port, as well as noise pollution and a potential risk of chemical spills. And where are those beluga whales whose well-being was to magically increase as soon as their fins touched the water in the sea pen, you may ask? Well, they are in a small quarantine pool at the Sealife Trust “Sanctuary” in Reykjavik (they also avoid mentioning this detail on the sea pen’s social media while asking for donations to keep them). Not to mention, they also charge admission to their visitors as if it were a conventional aquarium, and when the animals were in the floating enclosure, whale watching boats approached a few metres from the enclosure, taking commercial advantage of it.
If it wasn’t such a ridiculous story, it might even be funny. After more than a year of waiting in the aquarium’s small quarantine pool (much smaller than the one they had in Shanghai), the sea pen team felt they were ready to enjoy the 35,000 square metres of space. So in early September 2020, with a huge international press expectation, the beluga whales were moved to the sea pen, first to small floating cages, and finally into the bay. Happy ending? No. Just three months later (and only three months later), the beluga whales were released from the sea pen. (This time they forgot to summon the international press) the two belugas were taken back to the small quarantine pool. But most ridiculous of all was the excuse: the rescue station officials said that two arctic animals (which in the wild live in much colder places) were not prepared for the weather conditions in the south of Iceland. So at the end of 2020, the sea pen was left empty, and it is still empty today. The two beluga whales have been in the aquarium’s small quarantine pool in Iceland for more than two years. But that’s not the worst thing, the worst thing is that it has already been announced that they will never again enjoy the 35,000 square metres of the floating enclosure, but that a floating cage of about 2,000 m2 is being built with a net to prevent them from reaching the bottom. But wasn’t space the most important thing for these animals? Well, it seems that no, there seems to be no difference between a 35,000 m2 sea pen and a 2,000 m2 floating cage. Although, to be honest, it is very difficult to know what effect the sea pen has had on the beluga whales, because Merlin Entertainment’s obscurantism is absolute.
In almost four years no scientific information has been provided on the beneficial effects of the sea pen on the welfare of the animals. And it is highly unlikely that we will ever know what is going on, because all keepers, veterinarians, biologists and sea pen workers have signed confidentiality clauses that prevent them from making any comment on the state of the animals. But if the welfare of the animals is magically improved by enjoying the large space of the sea pen, why hide it with confidentiality clauses? The sensible thing to do would be the opposite, to show the world with great fanfare the scientific evidence that demonstrates the great benefits of rescue stations. But no, that does not seem likely to happen. The truth is that, given the extraordinary security measures they have taken to ensure that no information about what is happening to the beluga whales gets out, we might think that instead of a sea pen it is a secret military base where biological weapons are being tested.
Unfortunately, Lolita’s future does not look rosy at all. There is absolutely nothing done about her future rescue station. No permits have been requested, no studies of currents and swells, no infrastructure has been built. And surely, as in Keiko’s case, she will continue to eat frozen fish as she did in her previous home, as it is practically impossible for an orca who has lived all her life under human care to learn to hunt on her own. To date, no veterinarian has been able to guarantee that Lolita can survive the transfer from Miami to these facilities which, although activists call them sanctuaries because of the positive connotation of the term, are still floating cages where the animals are exposed to a myriad of risks that threaten their lives.
Given this situation, it is worth asking oneself a question: has anyone really thought about Lolita’s welfare when announcing her release? It seems that no, the only thing that the organisations involved in this supposed release have thought about is to create an icon with which to get more donations, increase their global visibility, clean their image or gain political advantage. But none of them have put Lolita’s welfare as their only priority, above the wishes, opinions and strategies of the organisations involved. And, in this sense, the most unworthy position is that of Miami Sea Aquarium, which has accepted the implicit argument put forward by Friends of Lolita without providing a single piece of scientific evidence, which is that Lolita would be much better off in a sea pen. This implies that Miami Sea Aquarium has disregarded the hundreds of people who have cared for Lolita, fed her, taken turns when she was sick, secured funding to buy her food and medicine, and monitored her health and well-being. This contempt for the people who have cared for Lolita is absolutely unacceptable. That is why, from Loro Parque, we want to send all our appreciation to those professionals who have dedicated years of their lives to caring for Lolita, they are Lolita’s true friends.