The new Coupeville whale bell tolled 40 times Tuesday, one for every orca captured or killed during the Puget Sound whale round-ups of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“We need to do something for these beautiful, spiritual creatures that sing these beautiful songs,” declared Douglas James, Jr, one of a dozen Lummi Nation members who attended the annual event sponsored by Orca Network.
About 100 people heard updates about the plight of killer whales in captivity and those living in local waters.
The day marked the 47th anniversary of a well-documented hunt in Penn Cove when seven young killer whales were taken to sell and four babies, caught in the herding nets, drowned.
In an effort to hide them, their stomachs were slit and loaded with rocks but they washed up on Whidbey beaches weeks later.
Speakers focused on the only survivor of those orcas that were shipped to aquariums worldwide; all but one died by 1988.
Called Tokitae by local researchers and named Lolita by Miami Seaquarium, the 22-foot-long 7,000-pound black-and-white mammal has lived in a 80-foot by 20-foot concrete tank for five decades, jumping and performing on command.
Lolita’s been alone since 1980 when her tank mate, Hugo, died of a brain aneurysm after repeatedly bashing his head against the concrete tank wall.
“She sometimes swims in patterns, like pacing in a cage. Or she just hangs there. Not moving,” Howard Garrett, co-founder of Orca Network, said. “No orca in nature is ever not moving for more than a few seconds.”
Two local historical sailboats, Suva and the Cutty Sark, led a flotilla of smaller boats to the capture sites. People aboard tossed flowers and cedar sprigs in the water and watched the swirls of color float away.
John Stone, captain of the Cutty Sark, recalled the sights and sounds of Aug. 8, 1970.
“The screams of the whales when they were being harvested, that really did pierce your heart,” he said.
Stone provided the boat ride that day for Wallie Funk, then publisher of the South Whidbey Record and Whidbey News-Times, to get to the site for photographs. Funk’s images of corralled and lassoed orcas remain a testament to crueler times.
Orcas, also called killer whales or blackfish, are actually large dolphins. Living in groups of families called pods, they’re known for their complex communication system with each pod emitting a unique sound.
Lolita is part of the L pod of the Southern Resident community that’s divided into J, K and L pods.
Since last year’s event, five of the resident orcas have died, raising more concerns about dwindling chinook, their main food supply, and the effect of toxins on the species. The current local population is 78.
“We’ve come a long way from the days when we would shoot orcas on sight or capture them to be slaves for our entertainment,” Garrett said. Worldwide, 165 orcas have died in captivity, he said.
Garrett credited the documentary, Blackfish, which focused on the death of a SeaWorld orca trainer and the park’s unsafe working conditions, for declining attendance and revenues at SeaWorld parks.
“The Blackfish Effect is still washing around the planet, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
Although a solemn occasion, a sense of optimism prevailed.
Many spoke of California’s new Orca Protection Act banning their breeding and limiting the use of orcas in parks for educational purposes only; other states are considering similar measures. Others noted the growing momentum to return and “retire” Tokitae, which means “nice day, pretty colors” in Coast Salish; the newest Washington State Ferry is named Tokitae.
The Lummi Nation proclaimed it was joining efforts to bring Tokitae back to the Salish Sea, her family and the “place in her heart.”
“The songs she heard from her family are very real to her,” said Douglas James Jr. “That’s what’s playing in her heart. That’s what’s playing in her dreams. We need to do something. Let’s bring this last one home.”
The retirement plan envisions using a sea pen in Eastsound, Orcas Island and a team of veterinary and scientific staff to gradually wean Lolita from a dead fish diet to foraging for live fish. It’s hoped that locating the sea pen near where her pod family roams will increase the chances she’ll communicate with them and rejoin them.
Seaquarium, however, repeated its objection to the plan.
“There is no scientific evidence that the 50 year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she were to be moved from her home at Miami Seaquarium to a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest,” Andrew Hertz, general manager, said in a press statement.
“It would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety in order to appease a fringe group,” Hertz said. “Lolita will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium.”
Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, is a leading authority on Puget Sound resident killer whales and the creator of Lolita’s retirement plan. If he didn’t think Lolita would survive, Balcomb has said he wouldn’t suggest the idea.
History of the hunts turned into a class project for five Oak Harbor High School students who interviewed many experts and witnesses and debuted their short video at the event. It will become part of the permanent educational display inside the Coupeville wharf.
Tia Fernandez, a soon-to-be junior, narrated the film. She said she learned a lot about interviewing skills, editing and research.
The project also left her with a different view of Whidbey Island.
“It’s still beautiful here,” she said, looking out on the still water glowing in the sun’s setting rays.
“But it’s also where the orcas were captured.”