See the Tiny Tank Where This Killer Whale Has Been Confined for 45 Years

Activists campaigning to free the orca Lolita hope video shot by a drone of her Miami enclosure will help their cause.
Jan 13, 2015·
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

She looks like a goldfish in a bowl, but she’s actually a blackfish in a tank.

A very small tank.

A new video has been posted on YouTube, apparently taken by a drone, showing Lolita, a 22-foot-long killer whale, swimming in furious circles in her diminutive pool at the Miami Seaquarium. For decades, opponents of orca captivity have decried the size of Lolita’s tank. But the overhead perspective of the one-minute video puts her living conditions into stark relief.

“It really drives home how tiny her tank is,” Naomi Rose, an orca researcher and a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said in an email. “Seeing her logging [resting in place] in it is bad enough, but this bird’s-eye view of her zipping around it at speed is almost worse, as she has to bank and turn so hard so often.”

Andrew Hertz, Seaquarium’s president, criticized the use of the drone to shoot video of Lolita. Doing so, he said in an email, demonstrated “a reckless disregard for the health and safety of our animals, employees and guests.”

As the video shows, Lolita’s home of nearly 45 years is barely bigger than she is. Scientists and activists have consistently complained to the Seaquarium and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service—which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act—that Lolita’s tight quarters are illegal.

According to AWA regulations, the width of killer whale tanks must be at least 48 feet, twice the length of the average orca. But the distance between the front of Lolita’s pool and the work island where trainers interact with her is only about 35 feet, according to a 1998 complaint filed with the federal government by the Humane Society of the United States.

Beyond the island is the medical pool, expanding the total width of the tank to 60 feet. APHIS said the extension brings the Seaquarium into compliance. But the island is made of solid concrete, blocking Lolita from swimming in a direct line from one side of the tank to the other.

To access the back pool, Lolita must swim through one of two gates abutting the island, and then only if they are opened.

“The two gates at either end of the center island were irrelevant to this requirement,” Rose wrote in a March 2014 letter to federal officials. “When they are opened, they create a larger circumference for the enclosure, but the regulation does not stipulate a minimum circumference for a cetacean enclosure, only a MHD,” or minimum horizontal dimension.

Meanwhile, decades-long efforts to free Lolita from her pool continue, including a march and rally scheduled for Saturday in Miami.

The Washington-based Orca Network has developed a detailed plan for retiring Lolita to a sea pen in Puget Sound, where she was taken from her family in 1970.

Seaquarium has rejected the proposal.

“Any proposal to move Lolita in any way, whether to a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, would be irresponsibly experimenting with her life,” said Hertz.

Lolita’s supporters hope the new video will influence public opinion.

“It shows me how Lolita keeps herself as physically fit as possible in that tiny tub,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. “Somehow she keeps active by doing those exercises. This tells me she is maintaining her mental and physical health.”

Lolita, Garrett added, “must have faith that one day she’ll return home, or she would probably lapse into the despair that has claimed so many captive orca lives.”