LUMMI NATION, Wash. – On a chilly March morning, Local 10 News anchor Louis Aguirre, along with a delegation from the Lummi Nation, a Native American tribe, boarded a fishing boat. They were bound for Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands in the northwestern corner of Washington state.
To get to Orcas Island, now a tourist destination for lovers of nature during the months of May through September, the boat crosses an area of the Salish Sea, an intricate network of coastal waterways where orcas are known feed on the salmon, herring, and even sea lions who also share these waters.
For 12,000 years, the Lummi Nation has called the Salish Sea home and have a deep spiritual connection to the orcas. It was in these same protected waters, where some 47 years ago, hunters trapped the 2-year-old Lolita and six other baby orcas. Now Lolita is the only survivor and is still living in a tank at the Miami Seaquarium where she was sold in September 1970.
"We have stolen her life from her," Lummi council member Freddy Lane said.
The past summer, the tribe unanimously passed a resolution to retire Lolita from the Seaquarium and bring her back to her natal waters. While there are some in the scientific community who fear freeing her could potentially kill her, the Lummis point the Orca Network's retirement plan, the conservation group which has relentlessly lobbied for Lolita's release for more than 25 years.
The plan's first step is to secure Lolita's release from the Seaquarium, and then transport her to a sea pen off Orcas Island, in the same body of water still frequented by her family, the L-Pod. Orcas tend to stay with their families for life.
The Lummis believe this sea pen is destined to be Lolita's new home, as it's on land that was once an old Lummi village. It's here they believe she will be able to begin to live the free life she deserves and that was taken away from her all those years ago.
A POWERFUL ALLY
The Lummis' support is a total game changer for marine biologist and orca expert Ken Balcomb, who has been at the forefront of the fight to retire Lolita.
"They do have a legal right," Balcomb said referring to the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty.
The treaty gives the Lummis the right to protect their fish and coastal lands. The salmon are disappearing. Global warming, pollution, shipping congestion, and commercial overfishing have wreaked havoc on this delicate ecosystem. The orcas are endangered, and Lolita is now part of the plan to save them and the Salish Sea. She is, after all, a star --- and the world will be watching.
With Lolita back in her natal waters, the Lummis believe balance will be restored and she will act as the global ambassador to lead a worldwide campaign to save the Salish Sea.
"If we don't bring the attention to the repair of this ecosystem, we have lost the Salish Sea and the orcas and the eagles and the people, ultimately," said Balcomb.
QUALITY OF LIFE
For Balcomb and the Lummis, this plan simply has to work. Balcomb explains why he believes this designated sea pen is the perfect place to rehab Lolita.
"It’s deep water, it has got a barrier island, it's got a nice embayment. We can pen it off, we can have a small pen that we can start with, then open it up to the whole East Sound," Balcomb said.
Lolita would not only finally have more space, more importantly, she could be reunited with her family. The L-Pod still swims these waters, especially in the summer when the salmon are running and they come here to feed.
That's right, her new home also comes with room service.
"This is a salmon hatchery. We produce thousands of salmon," said Jim Youngren, a Seattle real estate developer who built the Glenwood Springs Hatchery on Orcas Island 40 years ago to help repopulate the fish-depleted waters with wild Chinook salmon. These days Youngren’s little experiment releases 750,000 salmon a year back into the sea.
"We can grow salmon and she can relearn to feed on live salmon," Youngren said.
A 'RISKY' MOVE
Will the plan work? We asked Florida International University's biology professor and marine mammal expert, Douglas Wartzok, who has gone on the record before advising against moving Lolita.
Wartzok believes it is best for the beloved orca to stay at the Miami Seaquarium. He said it's highly unlikely that the 52-year-old orca could ever survive as a wild orca. He also warns the long transport from Miami to Bellingham, a seven-hour flight, would be risky.
"The track record of animals in captivity who were freed has not been good," Wartzok said. "They usually die fairly quickly."
But again, the plan is not to free her to the open ocean, but rather relocate her to a natural sea pen that will give her much more room, allow her to be close to her family, and where Balcomb said she will be fed regularly and receive the same veterinary care and human attention that she has grown accustomed to at the Miami Seaquarium.
"We don't want to freak her out by just suddenly dropping her in the water, as some people propose," Balcomb said. "She is going to have a confined area that she feels comfortable in. The idea is to give her at least as much care as she gets in Miami."
That's something Wartzok said may in fact give Lolita a better life, if they can get her there safely.
"It would probably be a good thing for her, in the fact that there would be greater space for her. I mean, the tank she's in is clearly too small," Wartzok said. "I don't think anyone questions that."
THE FIGHT IS ON
In a Feb. 20 letter, members of the Lummi Indian Business Council informed the Miami Seaquarium that they would be in Miami this week and are willing to meet with Miami Seaquarium president Andrew Hertz.
Hertz has declined to meet with the Lummis. Still, a delegation from the tribe arrived in Miami on Monday night, and they will be holding a news conference Tuesday, where they will reveal their next course of action.
The Lummi Nation is so invested in this effort that they have commissioned tribal master carver Jewell James, also an ecologist and preservationist, to create a new totem pole, a monumental carving used to recount a legend to commemorate ancestors or share cultural beliefs.
When James is finished, the totem pole will depict a mighty female orca making her way back home. James plans to tour the country with the totem pole to tell the world the story of the orca known as Tokitae with an ending that so far, has yet to be written.
James had this message for the Miami Seaquarium.
"Look, we can do this in a good way or a bad way," he said. "Good way, we make you a hero. Bad way, we bring in all our alliances and all our allies and we make you a villain."