When orcas, known throughout the attractions industry as killer whales, were first being captured and sent to parks, aquariums, and attractions in the 1960’s and 1970’s, operators had no idea where to place them. Sometimes, they would put them in tanks intended for pilot whales, then the largest cetaceans on display. More often, they would end up in tanks designed for the smaller bottlenose dolphins.
The fourth orca in captivity, Shamu, is a good example of this practice of placing orcas in tanks built for much smaller animals. When the failing Sea World park in San Diego attempted to reverse its fortunes by leasing the female orca from the Seattle Aquarium’s Ted Griffin in 1965, it placed her in an existing tank slightly longer than a school bus, where she would remain until a new, larger complex of tanks was completed in 1970. On the aerial image below, the size of her original tank (C), which at times held up to three orcas simultaneously, is placed into context when compared to the aquatic space allocated for dolphins (A) and pearl divers (B).
At the Miami Seaquarium, a much smaller tank housed the male orca Hugo, who was kept there from 1968 through 1970, when he was joined the female orca Tokitae, renamed Lolita by the Seaquarium, in the newly constructed Whale Bowl.
The tank that originally housed Hugo is now used to display the much more size appropriate manatee.
When the Whale Bowl opened in 1970, it was the second largest orca tank in the United States, after the newly opened second generation Shamu Stadium in San Diego. It is now the smallest killer whale display enclosure in North America.
Although Hugo passed away in 1980, Lolita has remained in the tank for close to fifty years, and since his death, she has remained there alone.
But there were two instances where she almost moved to a larger tank.
BATTLE OF THE KEYS
In 1991, Seaquarium owner Arthur Hertz told the Miami Herald, “Seaquarium is tired. It’s an old facility with no modernization for the last 20 years. If we’re going to retain it, we’ve got to rebuild.”
That statement came with a $70 million proposal to demolish almost the entire property and replace it with a new marine life park, waterpark, and restaurant/nightclub. Even though the park was devastated the following year by Hurricane Andrew, which killed a number of the park’s fish and sea lions and caused significant damage to the facilities, the plan continued until it was derailed in an appeals court by a neighboring community.
The Village of Key Biscayne is home to 13,000 residents and the only way on and off the island is over the Rickenbacker Causeway, crossing over a number of bridges and through Virginia Key, home of the Seaquarium. Residents of the Village have long had concerns that construction on Virginia Key would cause prolonged delays getting to and from the island, which is why the Village of Key Biscayne sued Miami-Dade County, which had approved the construction plan and is the owner of Virginia Key, and the Miami Seaquarium, which leases its land from Miami-Dade, to prevent the rebuilding of the park.
And the Village lost.
Then, Key Biscayne took its case to an appellate court, arguing that because the property was zoned as “Parks & Recreation”, the County’s Comprehensive Development Master Plan required that new construction must be “complimentary” to the existing property. The Village was able to show that by demolishing almost all structures, the new structures would not “compliment” the Miami Seaquarium as it existed prior to construction. Hertz determined that continued litigation was not in his best interest and dropped his plans.
9/11, DEBT, AND A SALE
Almost a decade later, on July 31, 2001, the Seaquarium announced that it would begin construction on a new $17.5 million facility for Lolita, advertised as being five times the size of her current space. While the Whale Bowl held 1/2 million gallons of water, the new facility would hold 2 1/2 million gallons.** At the time of the announcement, building permits had already been issued by the County. To finance the new orca facility, the park used its entire animal collection and Lolita’s $1 million insurance policy as collateral to secure a loan.
Just over three months later, four airplanes would be hijacked, two crashing into New York’s World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. Florida’s tourism industry was devastated. In the months after the attack, tourism business declined more than 20% across the state. The plans for the new orca facility were mothballed and have not, to date, been resurrected.
By the time the state’s tourism industry had recovered in 2003, the Seaquarium faced a new challenge. In September of that year, after a tip from animal rights activist Russ Rector, county personnel spent two days inspecting the electrical systems and structures within the park, citing it for 125 violations. The Seaquarium was advised that it had to fix the problems immediately or face a shutdown within a few days.
Between 2003 and 2013, only one major construction project – 2007’s Dolphin Harbor interactive swim with dolphins facility – took place at the park. Over the decade, more than $20 million was incurred in infrastructure improvement costs, and the park was building a sizeable debt.
In December 2013, the Miami Herald broke the news that Arthur Hertz was discussing a sale of the park with Palace Entertainment, the American subsidiary of Spanish theme park operator Parques Reunidos (PR). PR already owned Sea Life Park in Hawai’i and Marineland Antibes on the French Riviera, and at the time managed L’Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain, Europe’s largest aquarium and dolphinarium (now managed by the Vancouver Aquarium). As part of the sale, Palace would absorb the park’s debt. The deal was finalized in early July 2014.
FOX IN THE FOREST
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused significant damage to South Dade County, including the Miami Metrozoo. The community was also hit hard that year by the closure of Homestead Air Force Base as a result of hurricane damage (it reopened two years later as an Air Force Reserve Base). County leaders looked for a way to improve economic conditions in that part of the county and in 1993, a feasibility study was underway to build a theme park next to the zoo.
In January 2014, the county announced that out of six proposals and four semi-finalists, only two companies would be allowed to bid on the project. One of the bids came from a German dinosaur park operator, who proposed robotic dinosaurs and an earthquake simulator. The other came from 20th Century Fox, whose “Miami Wilds” concept featured a theme park based around the studio’s various film and television properties, an Ice Age waterpark, a high end shopping and entertainment center, a live performance theater, and a 400 room luxury hotel. Eventually, the dinosaur park pulled out, and by October 2014, Fox was busy negotiating with the County for its $930 million themed resort.
In late 2014, environmentalists began expressing concerns about endangered pine woodlands on the property, exacerbated by the late 2016 listing of the Miami tiger beetle, which is found in those woods, on the endangered species list. The county slightly downsized the project, eliminating the hotel, delaying the theme park, and moving the waterpark and entertainment center locations from undeveloped land to an existing parking lot. Fox remains in talks to make the project a reality.
What does this have to do with the Seaquarium?
The timing of the Seaquarium’s purchase by Palace Entertainment coincided with Fox winning the bid for the new theme park project, and both were subject to County approval. It should not come as a surprise then that Fox’s partner to manage the Miami Wilds theme park and waterpark happens to be none other than Palace’s parent company, Parques Reunidos, which stands to earn between $4.5 and 5.5 million per year in management fees once the entire complex is open.
That’s not to say that the Miami Seaquarium hasn’t been profitable to its new owner. According to a 2016 prospectus issued when Parques Reunidos was preparing to become a publicly traded company, the park in 2015 (the first full year of operation under the new ownership) contributed 4% of PR’s overall revenue for the year.
The prospectus describes a new attraction, slated for a 2017 opening:
The Miami Lagoon will be a new high-end snorkeling lagoon along with a new restaurant, bar and banquet facility, expected to open in 2017 at the Miami Seaquarium. It will feature a 1,500 square meter snorkel reef interactive experience along with an up-sell option for day visitors and dolphin interactive participants, as well as a sand beach with premium cabanas and island loungers. The restaurant will feature a classic Florida theme, be open to all visitors of the Seaquarium and contain a banquet space with views of the Miami skyline and a catering kitchen. We expect that the banquet facility will fill a known demand for climate-controlled, event-catered space in the Miami area. The Lagoon will occupy an area of 1.5 hectares and is expected to enhance the customer value proposition at the Miami Seaquarium and lengthen visitors’ stay, as well as increase the number of revenue streams at the park, including additional admission, food and beverage and merchandise revenue. We anticipate a total capital expenditure of €9.9 million [equivalent to US$11.6 million as of the writing of this blog post]
There will be no Miami Lagoon opening this year. Since acquiring the park in 2014, Palace has invested just over $10 million in improvements, including a new classroom and penguin exhibit. This year, the Seaquarium began a renovation of its entrance and retail areas, scheduled for a Spring 2018 premiere (though there might be a delay due to damage and cleanup from Hurricane Irma). However, Palace has not yet invested the level of capital needed to construct a major attraction such as Miami Lagoon or a new orca facility.
According to one of my sources with close ties to Parques Reunidos, much of the funding earmarked for expansion of the Seaquarium was rerouted to its sister park Marineland Antibes in France (I have not yet confirmed this through a second source, so I caution against taking this statement as verified fact). While the Seaquarium’s attendance may be in the 400,000 to 500,000 range per year, Marineland is much more profitable, with annual attendance between 900,000 to 1 million prior to the devastating flooding two years ago. The rebuilding of the French park is taking longer than expected and costs have been skyrocketing to bring the park up to code as building regulations throughout the French Riviera have become much more stringent following the storm of 2015.
To understand the severity of the damage, it’s best not to think of the damage as the result of severe rain, but rather as the end product of a rapidly moving wall of water, full of mud, debris, filth, and chemicals, moving with the intensity of a tsunami.
THE STORM OF 2015
On Friday, October 3, 2015, the French Riviera started to see record rainfall. Between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., 7.7 inches had fallen in Cannes, 4.3 inches in Nice, enough to fulfill the expected monthly rainfall in the city predicted for the entire month of October, and in Antibes, 5 inches.
It immediately became clear that the region was unprepared for such a storm and that tragedy would soon follow. On the second day of the rain, as the Riou de l’Argentière stream in the town of Mandelieu-la-Napoule began to overflow its banks. Eight residents living in the same neighborhood raced their cars to their underground car parks in an effort to make it home to safety, only to be drowned within minutes by the oncoming surge.
In Cannes, the opulent city best known for its wealthy visitors and famous film festival, nine people were arrested for looting on the second night of the rain, with the police continuing their search for many more. When the rain subsided in Cannes, rats left the flooded basements they usually reside in to feast on detritus that had been swept downhill through the city to its famous beaches.
The two days of record rain caused streams, creeks, and rivers to swell. In Antibes, bodies of water ranging from the Brague River to the smaller Vallon des Horts stream grew higher with each passing hour. Where they converge, the force of two raging currents uniting caused a surging high energy wave to crash over the bank early Saturday night. Some reports state that a levy may have been broken around this point.
The wave first swept through the Pylône campground, favored by British retirees, who rent the trailers and mobile homes placed throughout the property. 62 year old British tourist Linda Martinez was drowned inside her trailer.
Following the campground, the wave next hit Antibes Land, a small local amusement park. Children kept from being swept away by waiting out the flood on top of a Toboggan slide, while a showman unable to make it to his trailer held onto a pole while the water raged around him.
The water then arrived at the wide empty parking lot of the Marineland Resort. At this point, the crest of the wave was 6 1/2 feet high. The water spread into multiple directions. Part of it went into the southern part of the Resort, where it flooded the first floor of the hotel and the park’s sea lion and penguin pools with mud and debris collected from the river and elsewhere along the flood’s journey. The dolphin show tank was spared due the grandstand’s position in relation to the oncoming wave. However, the aquarium was hit hard, with almost all sharks and tropical fish dying due to contamination.
The remainder of the resort, including the waterpark and Kid’s Island were also hit hard. Most of the smaller petting zoo animals perished. A Marineland manager reported seeing a fox swimming near the hotel.
Channeled between the tall back wall of the polar bear exhibit and the neighboring grandstand, the wave circled around the large killer whale stadium, the only facility in continental Europe housing the animals, inundating the five large tanks. At the same time, it went through a portion of Marineland Lagoon, picking up turtles and rays and dropping some of them in an adjacent parking lot. Turtles were found around the property, including one in a flooded filtration room.
MAJOR DRAW IN A WORLD OF MINOR ATTRACTIONS
Miami itself has had its share of storms and the Seaquarium has lost operating days, revenue, and animals as a result. Hurricane Andrew (1992) shut the park down for four months, while Wilma (2005) shut it down for 3 1/2. The park lucked out with this year’s Hurricane Irma, suffering minimal damage as compared to previous storms and only being closed for a month as a result. One, however, begins to wonder, what would have happened to the park and its animals had Irma’s eye, as originally predicted, made a direct pass over Miami. Thousands of people followed my coverage on the Final Days Facebook page of both the storm and its effect on the state’s animal attractions. A large number posted comments asking why Lolita was still in that tank while Virginia Key was being bombarded by heavy rain and winds that in some instances exceeded 100 miles per hour.
An easier question to answer is more basic at its core: simply put, why is she still in that tank at all?
Unfortunately, with the exception of the 2016 prospectus, which listed revenue and attendance for each Parques Reunidos property in 2015, the company’s financial documents list such figures as a combined total for each operating subsidiary. Thus, the Seaquarium’s numbers for 2016 and into 2017, which will be drastically affected by the one month closure due to this year’s hurricane and the discounted admission offered upon reopening, are merged with the family entertainment center, historic theme parks, and waterparks that all fall under the Palace banner.
Without knowing the specific numbers, but understanding the attractions industry, the answer as to why she’s still there is twofold.
First, as much as some would like to dispute it, she’s still a major draw, especially for those living in or visiting South Florida who don’t want to drive to Orlando to see an orca. An immediate loss of Lolita would result in an immediate and sudden loss of revenue to the park. One estimate I’ve seen shows it dropping by 50%. To supplement the loss of the whale, the park would need to bring in blockbuster attractions, and right now, it appears to only have financing for a number of smaller attractions. As SeaWorld learned with the new Orca Encounter show and Ocean Explorer attraction at its San Diego park, a “more attractions for less money” (direct phrase from Joel Manby) strategy risks significant losses in attendance.
The second factor involves the park’s strategy to counter animal rights rhetoric. Seaquarium staff, including head curator Robert Rose, have continually countered animal rights activists’ statements and demands by declaring that Lolita would die if in a sea pen or released to the wild (often using the orca Keiko of “Free Willie” fame as an example). With these statements now documented in the public realm, should she be placed in a sea pen by either activists or by her owners themselves and not die, as the Seaquarium’s management claims she will, they will have created a public relations catastrophe within the company. Not only will their expertise on the other animals at the Seaquarium be brought into question, but so will the expertise of Parques Reunidos as a whole throughout its collection of zoos, aquariums, and marine life parks, especially at the highly profitable Marineland Antibes, which houses four orcas. This is one of the risks of speaking “corporatese,” the concept of stating the company line with selective jargon.
Quite simply, until a huge infusion of cash is invested in the Seaquarium to provide an attraction that will pull in numbers comparable to Lolita, the park needs her in that tank for it to survive. If she goes, the park suffers financially. If she goes in a sea pen and the statements of management are proven to be inaccurate, then the company as a whole goes into crisis control. She’s not in the Whale Bowl after 47 years because it’s the best environment for her. She’s there because she makes money and none of her owners have gotten around to building her a bigger bowl.
MISTER GARRETT’S OPUS
There are those who say she shouldn’t be in the park at all, that she should be in a sea pen near her pod, ready for release to the wild should the time come.
To achieve this goal, animal rights activists, including Howard Garrett of Orca Network, conducted a lengthy and widespread lobbying of NOAA Fisheries to include Lolita on the Southern Resident Killer Whale listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This was followed by an ongoing lawsuit against the park, the latest of many. This current case argues that the Seaquarium has violated ESA standards by keeping her in the tank. This argument is aided by a recent USDA audit which indicated that the Whale Bowl may not meet the minimum dimensions as set out in the Animal Welfare Act.
Let’s imagine for a moment that the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, and orders Lolita’s release to a sea pen in her native waters. The ESA listing makes this process much lengthier and more complicated than in the past – though not impossible. Garrett has a plan.
Keep in mind that placing a captive cetacean into the wild can be a complicated process for both the animals and with how the people working on the effort relate to each other. With the recent release of the South Korean dolphins, the public saw how a number of NGO’s working together with government agencies could successfully implement a reintroduction to the wild.
But I must also bring up Keiko, which is a unique case unto itself, for although the effort yielded a number of positive results along with a number of disappointing ones, the final determination on whether or not the release of Keiko was successful or not tends to split along partisan lines – those opposed to captivity are likely to consider it a success while those working within the zoological industry and zoo supporters often deem it a failure.
Whichever way one deems the outcome, one thing is apparent – from an administrative perspective, it was highly inefficient. Although David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld and Mark Simmons’ Killing Keiko look at the operation from opposite ends – they both share common elements – distrust among team members, funding drying up, a sudden shift in management.
As one activist shared with me, “Since Keiko died, Lolita is the one orca who has gotten the most attention, the most support, raised the most money. Even more than Tilikum, when he was alive.” Being such a high profile case, should it happen, her relocation and release can either go smoothly like the Korean dolphins, or it could be wrought with suspicion, funding issues, and management changes like Keiko. It depends on who’s in charge, who’s on the team, and on long-term funding (may suggest an endowment).
So Garrett has his plan. But what happens if others come out of the woodwork, wanting a piece of the pie, wanting to be the one to take the glory for returning Lolita to her home waters? It’s very possible. There are other plans already out there, such as that prepared by documentary filmmaker Michael Harris (presented here along with the Garrett plan for readers to browse, compare, and contrast. This should not be considered an endorsement of either). I’m also aware of two other plans that have yet to be publicly released. A court case to argue the merits of one plan over the other has a strong potential to delay expedition.
In the case of multiple plans, the court could order competing stakeholders to work together in devising a compromise plan. Their success would depend on their ability to get along (for instance, the two above plans would likely never be merged based on the historic relationship between Garrett and Harris, but that’s for another post, and I’ll probably request interviews with both so that I can keep the piece as centered as possible).
IN THE END . . .
In 2000, I was working for IMAX Corporation as an Operations Manager at its theater in South Miami. We were showing a film called Dolphins and had contracted with SeaWorld to sponsor the film – a perfect tie-in, we thought at the time, with Discovery Cove just about to open.
The day we launched the film, I went to my office and the light on my phone was blinking. I picked up the receiver and listened to the voicemail. It was Arthur Hertz. “How could you do this? Why are you partnering with Orlando?” he asked. “If you don’t support your local community, you’re not going to succeed in this town and you’ll go out of business. You should have called us first.”
I called him back immediately. I explained that I was new to town and hadn’t been to the Seaquarium yet. I’d like to visit and maybe we could discuss future partnerships. He was very pleased and invited me for a personal tour. The date was set.
When I arrived at the Seaquarium, I went to the ticket booth and asked for him. “Arthur’s not here today,” I was told. “In fact, he’s out of town.” I explained my situation and the young man let me into the park, free of charge, to look around. I did, for 25 minutes, realizing how old and antiquated the place felt (keep in mind this was seventeen years ago). After peeking inside the Whale Bowl, I turned around and left.
That’s the only time I’ve been to the Seaquarium.
Trying to determine Lolita’s future is a bit like that. It’s like anticipating a private tour, and you end up disappointed and wandering around by yourself. It’s really a craps shoot. I wish I could look into a crystal ball and tell you what will happen, but I can’t. I can only tell you what might happen.
- She could be court ordered to a sea pen, under the auspices of Garrett or other activists.
- The Seaquarium could be court ordered to develop a sea pen themselves and care for her there.
- A court could order her moved to a larger facility four hours up the Florida Turnpike.
- The Seaquarium could move her there of their own volition.
- A huge investment could be made by Parques Reunidos to build a larger tank either at the Seaquarium or Miami Wilds.
- Or, as a number of animal rights activists, including Russ Rector believe, she will continue to live out her life and die in that tank.
Her future lies with the courts and with her owners.
**Aquariums and marine life parks tend to discuss the measurements of their tanks in volume rather than spatially, as millions of gallons sounds much more impressive than the feet or meters that constitute length, width, and depth. In some instances, such as Kiska’s tank at Marineland Canada, this creates problems in determining if standards are being met as the tank is irregularly shaped and spatial measurements have not been made available.
I have also opted not to discuss the issue with the spatial dimensions of the Whale Bowl at Miami Seaquarium as that is discussed at length throughout the internet. A simple Google search of Lolita + orca + tank + size should take you there.