Dolphin Project Youth Ambassador Zach Affolter has been passionately working on the plight of Lolita, writes about his experience seeing her in person for the first time. — Ric O’Barry
by Zach Affolter
Golden clouds adorned the horizon as the sun’s vibrant arms reached out and lightened the sky. I stared out of the car window, admiring the sight. Despite getting six hours of sleep within 48 hours, I felt energized and I shed a tear. It was the day that the largest march for a captive cetacean would finally come to fruition, the day that the world would finally understand the suffering of an orca named Tokitae. Her name, meaning “nice day, pretty colors” in Coast Salish, is a far cry from her current life. She has spent the last 44 years in captivity.
It is Jan. 17, and after planning this event for the past few months with Robin Jewell and several other organizers, it was surreal sitting in the car on the way to the Miracle March for Lolita (Tokitae’s stage name). I couldn’t believe the event was finally coming to fruition. I took the sun’s golden rays shining out of the clouds as a symbol of Tokitae and her strength. A similar sight brought me out of a depression in 9th grade, so it made me tear up.
Once I arrived at Virginia Key Beach Park, the location for the march, I helped to set up some last minute elements and felt an overwhelming surge of energy. For the next couple of hours, people continued to gather around the park until it was time to assemble and get the march underway. By the time it started, there were at least 1,000 people including actresses Joanna Krupa (from Real Housewives of Miami), Shannen Doherty (from 90210) and Hollie Marie Combs (from Charmed and Pretty Little Liars).
We started marching silently across the street as the police held traffic. Lolita’s tank – the same one she has been trapped in for the past 44 years – loomed just in front of us. We passed it and marched all the way to the end of the Miami Seaquarium’s property. After that, we looped back around to the intersection on another part of the sidewalk. I turned around and glanced at Lolita’s tank. A sea of people marched behind me. I burst into tears, amazed that after many months of blood, sweat, and tears, the event was finally paying off. So many people care about Lolita and her plight.
The police motioned us to cross the intersection and we marched back to the park, overlapping people who had just crossed the street. A truck passed by, playing several videos I made about Tokitae three years before. I never would have thought they would have been played just outside the Miami Seaquarium. It made me cry even more out of joy, knowing that the things I had done so long ago were not in vain, that Lolita’s suffering was not in vain.
Once I crossed the street, I filmed continuously with my GoPro for several minutes as people kept coming and coming. Robin Jewel and I embraced each other, finally seeing the success of the event before our eyes. Many had told us from the beginning that it wasn’t possible, many had sent threats of violence, and many simply lacked the faith and energy. But in the end we prevailed and we shook Miami with this event; it made international headlines. It proved to the world that we have become a movement and that the majority of people no longer believe it is ethical to keep intelligent beings in a concrete box.
When I visited the Miami Seaquarium the following day to collect footage for my short film, Breaking Through The Clouds, I cringed at the sight of the puny tanks. It was my first time seeing cetaceans in captivity since I turned against SeaWorld at the end of 6th grade. I slammed my head against a concrete ledge – ironically near the very place Lolita’s tank mate killed himself in a similar way – out of guilt. How did I not see this before when I used to go to SeaWorld?
It was so obvious now how contrived the shows were, how the dolphins were slaves for our entertainment. I never applauded during any of the shows. It was almost unbearable to watch. The saddest part was that I could see and hear the ocean from the bleachers. The only barrier was a chain link fence.
What people fail to realize is that dolphins are trapped in these tanks for their entire lives. They don’t get to leave. Once people leave the park, their day is done, but for the dolphins, who are only able to swim in circles, it’s the same show every day, and it’s just awful.
I visited the dolphin underwater viewing area just across from Tokitae’s tank, crying and grunting in anger. A dolphin swam by and I put my face against the tank. I looked at him and whispered that I understood. He turned around, pressed his eye against the tank where mine was, and gazed at me in response. I told him that I was sorry for everything our species had done, that we are starting to awaken. He looked at me again, gently tapped his fluke against the window, and swam off. I shuddered and erupted into tears. The person next to me rolled her eyes and walked out. She didn’t understand.
Two hours later, my face was still drenched in tears. I paced around the park, impatiently waiting for Tokitae’s final show to begin. It was nearly impossible to sit through the first one and I wanted to talk to her before I left. Once the gates to the stadium opened, I rushed to the right side of her illegally sized tank. Seeing how small it was made me cringe. I knew it was awful before, but seeing it in person added a another level to it. It was like a prison cell.
Tokitae floated aimlessly as people stared googly-eyed at her. I scoffed in frustration. Some people still don’t get it, I thought. As if she was thinking the same thing, Tokitae turned her back on them, swam towards the center of the tank, and sunk beneath the water. She remained beneath the surface for a few minutes until the show began.
The tricks were artificial, arbitrary, and unnatural. I admired Tokitae for her strength and courage. Just witnessing this exploitation made me want to shove the trainers into the water.
I’m sure that Tokitae has felt equal despair, hopelessness, and perhaps even anger. Though she calls to her family only to have her screams echo back, she is over 3,000 miles away from them, trapped in an illegally-sized concrete bathtub. The memories of her capture must still linger in the depths of her mind, but her family has never been gone. And I think she knows this.
Tokitae swam towards me after the last show as I stepped up to the tank. All of the other people turned their backs and left the stadium; we were alone. I felt her pain, I felt her loneliness, but I also felt her strength and love. I cried again, this time out of joy. My anger and rage washed away.
The day before, over 1,000 people from all over the world marched for her freedom. People, organizations, and companies put their egos aside to make it happen because they were compassionate. Her suffering, Hugo’s suffering, and her family’s suffering, had not been in vain.
I whispered to Tokitae that people are learning, that I love her, that she is not alone, that she’ll soon reunite with her family (who are well-studied), and that her suffering has not gone unnoticed. She spun towards me, looked me straight in the eye, and shook her head as if she was nodding. Another tear fell to the ground. The security guards ordered me to leave and I reluctantly complied. But love has no borders; it is universal. No matter how large the gap, I will always be with Tokitae and hold her in my heart.
I have captured her story in my film, Breaking Through The Clouds, which premiered at Phinfest on March 14th. It has officially been accepted into the Friday Harbor Film Festival in November. Set from Tokitae’s perspective, it dives into her emotions and memories and how she has persevered through the last 44 years. My hope for this film is to expose the cruelty of keeping cetaceans in captivity, and to encourage people who are struggling and stumbling through life to keep pushing forward, even when it all seems in vain.
The experience in Miami changed my life. I already knew how awful holding cetaceans in captivity is, but seeing Tokitae in her puny tank brought it to a different level. I have faith that she will be returned home. After fighting so hard for so long, she deserves it. The march proved to me that people no longer believe that enslaving sentient animals for entertainment is acceptable. Our cause has become a movement. Like the tides, nothing can stop change.
The wave is coming fast. There will come a time when all cetaceans will live free, and there will be a time where we restore our connection with nature, and there will be a time when balance will be restored. Until then, we will not stop fighting!