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Sea and shore events will commemorate orca captures

Lolita the orca whale is shown during her capture in Penn Cove in 1970. - Dr. Terrill Newby photo
Lolita the orca whale is shown during her capture in Penn Cove in 1970.
— image credit: Dr. Terrill Newby photo

Forty years later, Lolita the orca whale is still doing her two 20-minute shticks down at Miami Seaquarium in Florida after being snatched from Penn Cove.

But there’s a new threat floating in — the escaping British Petroleum oil rapidly approaching from the Gulf of Mexico.

The drifting blobs and toxic dispersants mixed with them are creating new urgency in the 15-year effort to return Lolita to Puget Sound, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a local whale-watching group based in Greenbank.

“It’s going to get there,” Garrett said of the oil and toxins flowing into Biscayne Bay, the source of water pumped directly into the Seaquarium.

He said the dispersants are the most dangerous, because they will break down the natural oils in Lolita’s skin that are essential to her well-being. He said some scientists have put the probability that the oil will enter Lolita’s tank at 80 percent.

“It could continue to flow for years, and be a constant threat to her health,” Garrett said.

Meanwhile, to mark the 40th anniversary of the capture of Lolita and other orcas that were captured with her, several events are planned for next month. The events at sea and on shore will be Sunday, Aug. 8, at Penn Cove at Coupeville, where the whales were taken in 1970.

Lolita, also known as Tokitae and believed to be between 42 and 44 years old, is the sole surviving “southern resident” orca taken from the cove, Garrett said. She was captured along with six other orcas in the cove on the same day.

In all, 45 whales were captured in the cove. All but Lolita were dead by 1987, Garrett said.

Garrett and others have been trying for years without success to convince the Seaquarium and various government agencies to agree to let Lolita return to Puget Sound, where the southern resident orca population now numbers 86. So far, the only success in the campaign has come in the arena of public opinion.

“It’s amazing, the change of thinking around the world,” Garrett said. “We’ve shown that captivity does harm the whales, and that there is a solution that’s very simple and without risk.”

He said if approval to relocate Lolita is granted, supporters can begin to raise the money.

He said that depending upon the amount of donated equipment and services, the cost to bring Lolita home probably would be between $100,000 and $1 million.

Meanwhile, the August commemoration also will honor all the whales that died during capture or in captivity, Garrett said.

The salute to the anniversary will begin at 3 p.m., when participants in all types of vessels will circle the perimeter of the capture site in Penn Cove and take part in a wreath ceremony.

Kayaks and small boats can be launched from Captain Coupe Park in Coupeville, Garrett said.

The historic 52-foot ketch Cutty Sark, carrying special guest Ric O’Barry and others, will take part in the wreath ceremony and make a cruise around the cove.

O'Barry is a former dolphin trainer for the "Flipper" television show who turned activist to battle against the captivity of dolphins after one died in his arms. His 2009 film, "The Cove," which exposed the seamier side of mammal capture and captivity, won an Academy Award for best documentary.

Following the on-the-water events will by a reception with O'Barry and other guests from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Coupeville Wharf. There will be displays depicting the Penn Cove whale captures.

Concluding the commemoration will be presentations beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Coupeville Library, with guest speakers O'Barry, Garrett and others. Witnesses to the captures also will share their memories. The evening will include a silent auction, coffee and desserts.

A limited amount of space is available on the Cutty Sark, with tickets costing $50 per person. All the other events are free.

To make a reservation on the Cutty Sark, or for more information, call 1-866-ORCANET, e-mail info@orcanetwork.org or visit www.orcanetwork.org.

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