A famous aquarium orca who has been dubbed “The World’s Loneliest Whale” was left to fend for herself in the Florida Keys as a Hurricane Irma blasted toward Miami as a Category 4 storm.
The whale, named Lolita, is part of an endangered species and has been the star attraction at the Miami Seaquarium for 47 years. But as the biggest hurricane in history chewed up the Florida Keys on its way to the mainland, she was left in the open and not evacuated.
If Irma hadn’t taken a sudden jog to the west, Lolita’s 62-year enclosure would have become her tomb with projectiles like bleacher seats and thin corrugated metal roofing raining down on the open whale pool, animal rights organizations said.
She is housed in Virginia Key, which is at the base of Miami.
“Miami Seaquarium doesn't have Lolita's best interests at heart; if they did they'd send her to a seaside sanctuary where there would be no roofs, bleachers, and signage to collapse on her and where she would be able to dive deeply, escaping storms the same way orcas in the wild do,” said Jared Goodman, PETA’s director of Animal Law. PETA has been involved in several lawsuits to free Lolita.
IMAGE: Miami Seaquarium holding tank for Lolita after Irma passed through. Courtesy Dolphin Project.
When contacted by The Daily Wire, the aquarium’s parent company, Palace Entertainment, said their animals were “fine” and the company has been more concerned with helping people.
“Many people have lost their homes, they are flooded and are without power,” said an unidentified woman who answered the phone at Palace Entertainment’s California headquarters. “We’re trying to help people. Human life is our priority right now.”
The employee did not say what relief efforts the aquarium was undertaking.
“Our animals have survived through many storms, so we're doing our best to provide for our animals and our staff,” the employee said.
Emails to Palace Entertainment’s CEO and CFO were not returned nor was a message to the aquarium’s president.
Several hours later a tweet appeared saying that the Seaquarium’s animals were “safe.”
The tweet showed a happy looking Lolita with a trainer, prompting a new round of backlash over the dirty pool as people demanded to see a current photograph. One tweeter showed a partially demolished seal tank that was a screen grab from a local TV newscast.
“If the storm hit like it was projected, the tank probably would’ve broken in half,” said Lincoln O’Barry with the Dolphin Project. “I saw the tank once and it appears that numerous cracks were just filled with spackle. The place is dilapidated, it hasn’t had any major renovation since it was built.”
In the hours after Irma passed Miami, social media was filled with anxious postings from people waiting for word on Lolita’s fate. Unlike other zoos, the aquarium did not provide specifics on their storm preparation or status reports during and after the storm. Their social media pages were silent.
So O’Barry sent a drone over the aquarium and took photos showing a black mass swimming in what appears to be a dirty tank. Twitter rejoiced.
O’Barry said the facility appeared to suffer some damage to the sea lion exhibit along with uprooted trees.
“One of the orders was to evacuate the keys,” he said. “They didn’t appear to do anything, they just battened down the hatches and left. Any projectile would be going 150 miles per hour.”
The aquarium’s decision to not evacuate Lolita could be viewed as a violation of federal statutes regarding captive endangered animals. Kate Brogran, spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the Seaquarium is in compliance with federal law given they provide care and maintenance “as long as such practices or procedures are not likely to result in injury.”
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is tasked with overseeing endangered animals in captivity. Spokesperson R. Andre Bell said his agency received information from the Seaquarium prior to Irma that included “proactive measures…to mitigate the potential effects of hurricane Irma.”
He would not say what measures could be taken with a direct hit of a Category 4 hurricane.
He added that federal inspectors would be checking on the Seaquarium “to assess damage and ensure the welfare of the animals.”
Lolita has been the focus of an intense battle for decades to return her to a protective sea pod in her birthplace of the Pacific Northwest. Lolita’s tank is the smallest such enclosure in America and isn’t deep enough to allow her to dive straight down. She has no protection from the sun or any regular companions.
NBC’s Dateline did a segment in 1996 where a scientist captured noises made by Lolita’s family and she reacted to it when the tape was played back.
PETA is a plaintiff in two different lawsuits aimed at wresting Lolita from the Seaquarium based on animal welfare laws. One of the cases will be heard by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in December.