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Originally published Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 12:09 PM

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Lolita still thrives at Miami Seaquarium

Whale's show still mystifies. The kids still wonder, "How does she do that?"

McClatchy Newspapers

By Robert Samuels

MIAMI — Lolita's show still mystifies.

The kids still wonder, "How does she do that?" as the 7,000-pound killer whale leaps in the air. She fires up the concerns of activists and those ensconced in midlife crises, who wonder whether she ever wants more than this, after years of doing the same thing.

Forty years, actually. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the grand dame's first taste of Biscayne Bay, cooled for her pool to a more comfortable 55 degrees. For 40 years, she has swum in the same 60-foot-by-80-foot pool and done the same tricks — even as her mate, her friends, her old vet and the man who captured her have all moved on.

Lolita's longevity has boggled researchers, more so than anything she does during her splashy public demonstrations. Killer whales aren't expected to live longer than 20 years in captivity. Only one killer whale has survived longer than Lolita.

When it comes to understanding these behemoths, Lolita is both the example and the exception.

"We're very proud of the fact she's still healthy," said Miami Seaquarium curator Robert Rose. "It's a real testimony to her longevity and how much we've cared for her. She looks and acts like the same animal I interacted with 15 years ago."

Even critics, such as research scientist Ken Balcomb, will admit the Seaquarium has done a good job meeting her nutritional needs.

But after 40 years, there are other issues at play: "I think she has Stockholm syndrome," said Balcomb, who studies killer whales as director the Center of Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash. "She feels in debt to her captors and relies on them for her survival."

Lolita certainly has a memory, and research has shown her species is one of the few known to have self-awareness. There's little doubt she has an opinion on her life and her trainers.

But biologists haven't unlocked the keys to her language, so the only creature who truly knows whether Lolita is getting what she wants is Lolita. She stays in her pool, physically able to have offspring but never likely to find another mate, as a female perennially misunderstood.

As Rose watched a recent show, a concerned guest approached him.

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"She lives in this small confinement?" he asked. "Is that OK?"

Rose paused, then said:

"This is her home. It's the only home she's known for 40 years."

Lolita was first known as Tokitae, a young killer whale living in Penn Cove, Wash.

Balcomb has recorded her family's movements, hunting patterns and interactions for 34 years.

It's possible that Lolita's mother witnessed her daughter's capture in 1970. Newspaper reports back then described it as heinous: Captors looking to sell the animals dropped underwater explosives to scare the creatures inside coves, then dropped nets on the other side to stop them from escaping.

They picked up about nearly 50 killer whales during that mission.

Scientists have estimated Lolita was anywhere between 2 and 7 years old at that time, based on her size. Dr. Jesse White, a marine-mammal vet, bought her for $20,000 from an exhibition outfit in Washington, D.C., and transferred her to the Miami Seaquarium on Sept. 24, 1970.

She received the vivacious stage name Lolita. And she partnered with the resident male orca, Hugo.

"Hugo was focused and attentive," said Eric Eimstead, who trained the pair in the 1970s. "Lolita's easy going. She likes to do things her own way. She responds much better when you have a relationship with her."

Lolita's helpful. He remembered the time he dropped a Timex watch in the pool, and she fished it out for him. She was apparently very comfortable with Hugo. Sometimes she'd mate with him during the shows.

After 10 years sharing the pool, Hugo died after ramming his head into their concrete tank.

Research about killer whales is decades behind what humans know about chimpanzees and elephants, two other species that are recognized for having the ability to understand their surroundings.

What's clear is that killer whales are really large dolphins — not whales — who hail from integrated families with overbearing mothers. Each family has its own distinct language, a quality scientists once thought was solely a human attribute.

Those facts made the public a little more vexed about the capture of killer whales, raising questions about their purpose at tourist attractions like the Seaquarium.

In the 1980s, Lolita became more than a cool jumping whale. She became an ambassador for her species.

"The shows became more educational," said Manny Garcia, who trained Lolita in the late '80s. "Instead of just demonstrating behaviors, we'd start to describe what the purposes of those behaviors were."

For example, there's a point in a show where Lolita turns her white stomach over and begins to flop her tail, creating a splashy mess. That move is seen in the wild as helping a pod's matriarch establish her dominance.

Caretakers have also learned that Lolita's social life is as important as making sure she's fed her as much as 200 pounds of fresh fish a day (she prefers her salmon sliced, not whole, thank you very much).

Now her trainers spend more time with her, rubbing her rubbery head, kissing her 28-pound tongue and tossing her favorite toy: a waterproof blanket she likes to drag on her dorsal fin.

None of these things would happen in the wild. So the staff believes strongly that she would never survive if freed.

They point to Keiko, the killer whale featured in the popular movie "Free Willy," who was eventually set free from an aquarium in Mexico to the North Atlantic.

First, Keiko found a dock where children played and began to entertain them. When he was moved from that dock, he died searching for a family.

Balcomb, the researcher who studies Lolita's pod, actually worked with Keiko. He hates the analogy, mostly because he knows Lolita's family.

Keiko died, according to Balcomb, because he could not integrate back into a pod and join their new society — which is important for the animals. Lolita wouldn't have that problem, he thinks, because they have identified her family and she might still speak their unique dialect.

He has proposed an idea to the Seaquarium: connect Lolita, via satellite image or telephone, to her pod in Penn Cove, just to see what happens.

The Seaquarium has said it's not interested. As far as the staff is concerned, Lolita already has a family. They are her family.

Lolita's world has changed. The killer whales who were captured with her are now all dead, as is the vet who brought her to Miami. The man who captured her is on life support.

Eimstead, who trained her in the 1970s, is now the Seaquarium's marketing director. Garcia, who worked with her in the '80s, has a new career working with medical equipment.

"There was a moment of my life when I'd done everything I felt I could do at the Seaquarium," Garcia said. "But there's a major part of me that imagines that I could go back."

But Lolita swims still, in this same tank, never giving a clue that she'd want anything else. She has five pool mates, dolphins who are a twentieth her size.

"Her social life and her playtime helps to keep her mind healthy," her trainer, Heather Keenan, says. For 11 years, Keenan has greeted Lolita every day with an icebox of capelin, herring and salmon that Keenan slices herself.

Keenan's job is a childhood dream. She remembers going to aquariums as a little girl and seeing a killer whale stupefy the audience. That whale was Lolita.

"I guess I never did think that I'd be taking care of the same animal," she said, while caressing her head. "But this is what I've always wanted."

Keenan looks at her friend and knows exactly what the killer whale wants. Lolita's mouth is wide open and bobbing. She could use a little more salmon.

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