Penn Cove orca roundup recalled

"Photo: Orca whales crowd together after being surrounded by nets in the 1970 capture.Wally Funk photoLolita benefit at Captain WhidbeyAn event to benefit the Lolita Come Home project through the Orca Conservancy will be held Tuesday, Aug. 8 from 5-10 p.m. at the Captain Whidbey Inn in Coupeville.The evening will include a waterside ceremony, presentations, entertainment, silent auction, sunset sails about the Cutty Sark, gourmet appetizers and desserts. Special guest Secretary of State Ralph Munro will speak, and other officials and dignitaries are expected. Tickets are $15; Cutty Sark sails, $15. Call 360-678-3451 or e-mail for more information. Thirty years ago, two men in a one-man boat pushed out into Penn Cove in the middle of the night and paddled quietly in water that glowed with phosphorescence. Below them, dark shapes the size of semi-trucks moved like ghosts as otherworldly voices from the deep filled the air.It was a pretty fantastic experience, really, Coupeville resident Ron Bertsch explained. He and his friend Michael Park, who passed away last month, tried to stop a 1970 orca capture that still haunts, and compels, Whidbey Island residents in the year 2000.A group trying to free Lolita, the only whale from the capture that is still alive, is holding a benefit at the Captain Whidbey Inn next Tuesday, which is the 30th anniversary of the orca round-up. Members of the Orca Conservancy, formerly the Tokitae Foundation, will be joined by locals like Bertsch, politicians and others who remember the capture.The capture itself was led by entrepreneurs Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry, who sold the orcas to aquatic parks around the world. In their two-year effort, they captured 57 orcas from Puget Sound, cutting the resident population nearly in half. They caught Lolita in Penn Cove the first year and shipped her to the Seaquarium in Miami. Lolita, whose native name is Tokitae, lives in the smallest whale tank in the world.On Whidbey Island, memories of the event still run strong. Bertsch said he and Park got a wild hair after witnessing the corralling of the 25 whales near Coupeville and decided to set them free. They paddled out to the nets, moving amid the other orcas that gathered outside the capture net, and cut the mesh with a big bread knife.The cut a hole big enough to drive a truck through, Bertsch said, but for some reason the whale family didn't swim free. He believes that only one female orca left through the hole. But because of confusion or maybe a sense of community, most of the whales stayed together in the net.Wally Funk, the former publisher of the Whidbey News-Times, took literally hundreds of close-up photographs of the killer whales in the net. He said the round-up was a giant tourist attraction and a media event. At the time, he said public opinion on the island was divided over the ethics and the humaneness of the capture.Most people didn't realize how intelligent the mammals are and were just excited to get a close-up look at an entire pod. It was high drama, he said. It drew people from all over the Northwest.But during the round-up, a group of locals did take action by sending a protest telegram to the secretary of the interior asking for a halt to such hunts. The federal government replied quickly in a telegram that stated it is the responsibility of the state government to enact protections. The letter-writers included Mary Fullington of Coupeville, James Haddon of Oak Harbor, Margaret Sewell of Coupeville and Mr. and Mrs. Earl Brown of Coupeville, according to a 1970 News-Times story.Then there was a turn of public opinion after the bodies of three orca calves and an adult washed up on the beach. Funk said the orcas had become hung up in the net and drowned. The captors, apparently, wanted to hide the evidence from the public, so they tied chains around the corpses, slit the bodies open, filled them with rocks and let them sink to the bottom of the cove.When the sea deposited the bloated bodies on the shore a few days after the hunters left, it caused a public outrage that lasted until the capturing of orcas was banned from the state six years later.Cpt. John Stone, the proprietor of the Captain Whidbey Inn, was a teenager at the time of the capture. While his brother worked for the whalers, he was against capturing the giant sea mammals and instead worked for Funk, ferrying him back and forth to the boardwalk that surrounded the pen.Stone said his greatest thrill came when he was in his 11-foot aluminum boat and set on a crash collision with a giant male orca outside the pen. He said he decided to stay his course, and right before the collision, the orca dived beneath his little boat.It was phenomenal, he said. His huge dorsal fin went down like a periscope.While it was exciting, Stone said, the capture was also very poignant and sad. He remembers how the whales would cry as they were hoisted out of the water. Their cries would be echoed by a chorus of other orcas.In all, seven of the youngest orcas from the capture were sold to aquariums and marine parks. Lolita was six years old then and sold for $20,000.In 1996, a group of locals, whale lovers, politicians like Sec. of State Ralph Munro and Gov. Mike Lowry, and a group of children from Hillcrest Elementary School began an effort to Bring Lolita Home. Susan Berta, the president of the Orca Conservancy, said the group now has members all over the globe.The popularity of the movie Free Willy and the effort to free the movie's star, an orca named Keiko, has bolstered the effort to free Lolita. Currently, Keiko is living in a sea pen in the North Atlantic, where trainers are getting him into shape and teaching him to fend for himself in the wild.Berta said the release effort has been astonishingly successful so far, and has even surpassed the expectations of the trainers. She said it erases any doubt that Lolita or any other orca in captivity can return to the wild.Though she is 36 years old, Lolita is still in her child-bearing years and could live into her 50s. The Conservancy president Howard Garrett said that some of Lolita's relatives in the L-25 pod have been identified and would likely accept her back into the fold. The big obstacle to freeing Lolita, however, is the Seaquarium and owner Arthur Hertz. The group that is setting Keiko free has offered to buy Lolita, and the Orca Conservancy has offered to work with Hertz to replace the orca with an Imax or virtual reality theater. But Hertz refuses, calling the group a bunch of environmental radicals and claiming the release would be a death sentence for Lolita. The Animal Defense Fund is currently researching Lolita's case since the size of Lolita's pool may not measure up to minimum federal standards.In the meantime, Lolita will continue to carry people on her back and do tricks twice a day for screaming crowds in the hot Florida sun while her family, 4,000 miles away, cruise the San Juans."

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