A half century ago, William D. Talbert III arrived in South Florida and launched a decades-long career in tourism management and promotion. Fifty years later, the regional and statewide hospitality industry and its marquee properties, though now stalled by the pandemic, are still arguably tops on the planet.

Talbert says Miami — and other Florida cities — boasts a world class performing arts center. A new national park was also added in that span of time, he said, as well as a slew of stadiums, top-notch music festivals and internationally renown art exhibits. Then there are the cruise ship terminals, Central Florida theme parks and plenty more for an industry that brought 130 million visitors spending close to $100 billion in pre-pandemic Florida.

“I got here in 1970,” said Talbert, who has headed the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau for the past two decades. “Boy was it a different place then.”

More:Orca family of Miami Seaquarium’s Lolita on path to extinction as feds mull whale watch ban

It was a different tourism sales pitch, too. The same year Talbert moved here, the state welcomed a new lure, Lolita the Killer Whale, for the 22 million people expected to visit and spend $5.5 billion. The captive orca immediately thrilled audiences with acrobatic stunts and jumps at the Miami Seaquarium.

Lolita easily ranked as the most iconic, if not exotic, animal performer during an era in which Florida was synonymous for roadside attractions featuring alligators, snakes, monkeys, parrots and racing greyhounds.

In recent years, however, Lolita’s captivity has been a polarizing agent. Animal rights activists have long argued that her confinement to a pool at the Key Biscayne aquarium is cruel, and for a time her plight became a national cause as groups clamored for her release. Those pleas have been consistently rejected even as plans to move her to more spacious quarters at the Seaquarium, which did not comment for this story, were jettisoned over a decade ago.

More:Orca Recovery Day: Why The Whale Trail is greenest way to see marine life in wild

But Lolita’s predicament, as well as attention on exploitation of other animals, has helped usher other major changes in the complicated, and sometimes flinty, relationship between human economics and animal welfare. Few places have been more of a hotspot for this tension than tourism-focused Florida. 

In 2017, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which had key operations in Florida, stopped performing its “Greatest Show on Earth.” On Dec. 31 of last year, Sunshine State pari-mutuels held their last greyhound race two years after a super-majority of the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the practice. Public pressure forced Sea World to scale back its once-extremely popular orca shows. Even interest in horse racing, a staple past time for decades, has been on the decline for many years.

Kim Kelly of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which helped back the greyhound constitutional ban, said conscientious Florida voters are the ones driving protections for performing animals.

“We’ve seen time and again on universal protection measures that where voters are making the ultimate determination, if it’s a ballot initiative, there is overwhelming support in favor of improvement for animal welfare,” she said. 

More:Orca activists mark 50th anniversary of Miami Seaquarium’s Lolita capture

As a result, Kelly added, the tide has changed in Florida because the public is learning more about, and engaging to a greater degree with, animal welfare issues.

“It’s not just advocates who are calling for change but everyday citizens are voting with their dollars,” she said. “They are no longer attending some of these attractions.”

Conservation, entertainment — and a call to action

That’s not to say Florida is now bereft of zoos and aquariums, quite the contrary.

But many of those attractions were started to pursue alternative missions emphasizing wildlife conservation and to encourage their guests to take an active role in bettering their stewardship of natural habitats and environments. 

An example is Juno Beach-based Loggerhead Marinelife Center. Later this year, the center will expand its exhibits to focus on the critical role coral reefs play in providing an ecosystem for sea turtles. Loggerhead, though, is best know for its role in rehabilitating and releasing injured sea turtles. 

Hannah Campbell, Loggerhead’s director of education, said that is a critical distinction. The sea turtles at Loggerhead are not there as captive display animals, but rather are being nurtured back to health before being released.

“They are here for a temporary period of time under some of the best clinical care there is for these animals,” Campbell said. “The intention is that every single animal in our facility is released back into its natural habitat … because the life of these animals is not limited to our facility The life of the animal is to go back to the ocean to live in the wild.”

That’s the core of the center’s educational research programs that, before COVID-19, were presented to the 360,000 people that visited the facility every year. Because of pandemic restrictions, Loggerhead has been focused on its virtual programs, including those for seniors and school classrooms, featuring “teaching” scientists like water quality specialist and sea turtle biologists.

Another area of focus: human impact on the environment. A perfect example, Campbell said, is understanding of the way plastics damage the oceans and its wildlife. 

“We’re finding plastics in the depths of the ocean,” she said. “We are starting to understand just how pervasive our impact on the oceans is, our human impact.”

Campbell said a better informed public will force everyone to observe best practices and make necessary changes. 

“We have all felt the shift to a conservation platform. I believe that Loggerhead has always lived that mentality and we are thrilled that others are starting to follow suit and start to question some of their practices a little bit better as the science continues to improve and we are a little bit more informed,” she said. “But also as people start to have easier access to that information and hold organizations accountable for their practices.”

At Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, the mission is to educate the 350,000 annual visitors — again, pre-pandemic — about research and conservation efforts that the organization’s scientists and biologists are conducting, said Evan Barniskis, assistant vice president.

That includes efforts as varied as long-term studies on manatees and sharks plus a new red tide research initiative launched two years ago to understand and why the blooms occur and how they can be mitigated.

Research findings are then presented in the aquarium.

An example, Barniskis said, is Mote’s decades-long data gathering on coral reefs in the Florida Keys. That work is presented in an aquarium aquatic display featuring live corals that is supplemented with interactive exhibits and graphic representations of the varied research efforts.

The presentation of data is then followed by a call to action predicated on how, say, pollution, whether from trash or fertilizer run-offs during the rainy season, can suffocate or damage coral reef systems. Ditto for manatee conservation, where the research division studies manatee movements, patterns and behaviors and then supplies the data to policy-makers who develop and decide on regulations, he said. 

“We try to educate the public about what our scientists have understood about corals, what they hope to understand about corals by doing further research and then also what our visitors can do to help us further that understanding and what they can do to help conserve the natural environment. And ways they can make good choices in their daily lives to help protect the corals,” Barniskis said. “Educating them on making appropriate decisions in their daily lives is paramount to why the aquarium exists.”

Barniskis said Mote isn’t shy or subtle about letting guests know money from ticket sales funds critical programs like rehabilitating injured sea turtles at the facility’s marine wildlife hospital. 

“When our visitors come here, they learn about that. Not only do they have a great time, they very are entertained, but they know that the money that they paid for their tickets goes directly to helping to positively impact the marine environment and the species that live there,” he said. “So not only do they get entertained but they have a really good feeling about the experience as well.”

What about Lolita?

On Feb. 26 of last year, a group of Lummi Nation tribespeople stood in the sunshine just just outside the Miami Seaquarium parking lot, singing a somber song of reflection and longing to mark Lolita’s 50th year in captivity on Key Biscayne.

“We want the people here in Florida to know Lummi Nation came, three of us, praying,” said Raynelle Morris, a Lummi tribe member. “We want people here and around the world to know Lummi Nation is preparing for her return.”

To the Lummi, or the Lhaq’temish people, the Native American tribe that spans the Salish Sea coastal regions of northwestern Washington State and southwestern British Columbia, Lolita is known as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. Others in the region call her Tokitae.

The common denominator is they want her captivity to end, Morris said this week in reflecting on their visit last year.

“It’s gone on too long. She will come home,” said Morris. “Her family is broken. Our people our broken because her family is not together. When she comes back, we are reunified. We are whole.”

Lolita performing in February at the Miami Seaquarium

In fact, Lolita is a member of the orca family called the Southern Resident Killer Whales that migrates through the coves, archipelagos, bays and open waters stretching from northern California to southwestern Canada. 

From 1965 to 1975, the Southern Residents were the targets of profiteers who captured and sold them to marine parks across the United States. The Center for Whale Research calculates that, during the savage 10-year period, the Southern Residents’ population was reduced by 58 family members, with 45 distributed to marine parks and 13 killed in attempted takings. 

Lolita, the last living Southern Resident in captivity, was caught at Penn Cove in Puget Sound north of Seattle in August 1970. Taken from her family and reportedly sold for $20,000, Lolita has spent a lifetime in South Florida’s tropical climate as a quasi-circus performer.

The captivity, historians, advocates and marine researchers say, has only grown sadder and more tragic in the past decades as orca research has revealed the tight familial bonds that mark orca pods, leading critics of captive orcas to credibly argue it is a form of animal enslavement.

But in sunny Miami in 1970, marine mammals were the hottest attraction of the day. In the old Orange Bowl, a dolphin jumped and pranced in an end zone pool during Miami Dolphins games. And on Key Biscayne, not far from then-President Nixon’s Southern White House, Lolita was the talk of the town.

“She is a truly special animal,” said Andrew Hertz, a former Seaquarium executive who first remembers seeing Lolita and her pool mate Hugo as an elementary school kid in the early 1970s. “The image in my head is of the two of them jumping up with their two bodies entirely out of the pool at the same time. They blocked out the sun it was so magnificent.”

Hertz’s father, Arthur, was CEO of Womteco Enterprises, which owned the Seaquarium. Andrew Hertz would later serve as the marine park’s general manager until he left in 2018.

The younger Hertz said that whatever the circumstances that brought Lolita to South Florida, moving her back to the Pacific Northwest would be dangerous for her and he insisted the orca has been extremely well cared for in Miami. While he was in charge of the facility, he said, the care of Lolita and the other animals he was responsible were his top priority, 24/7.

“For 22 years for me, it was never a Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 gig,” Hertz said of his career at the Seaquarium. “It is an all encompassing thing when, as part of your business model, you are keeping animals alive. There is no such thing as watching the clock. You are always thinking about it, you are always worrying about it. And, obviously, with only one killer whale, you are worrying about her a lot.” 

Hertz said there is a special bond between the orca and trainers. He recalled how Lolita had an “emotional” connection with certain individuals, and was demonstrative toward them with her body language.

“There were certain people she could not take her eyes off,” Hertz recalled.

Hertz said, yes, there were detailed plans to build a new, much larger home for Lolita on the Seaquarium property in the early 2000s. But those plans were derailed by a slew of setbacks, including the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Overlooked now, he added, is the Seaquarium’s marine conservation efforts, from rescued manatees and sea turtles and raising awareness of the dangers of plastics in the ocean.

“It’s all about education, it’s all about entertainment, it’s all about community involvement, and it’s all about wildlife conservation,” he said. “They are doing the work of helping animals in need.”

But to the Lummi Nation, and orca advocates in the Pacific Northwest, all of that does not override the wrong, the original sin, of keeping an orca in captivity in a small pool.

The Native American tribe considers the orcas an extension of the tribe’s clan. To the Lummis, the act of barbarism that was the capture and containment remains unfinished business that can only be resolved by her repatriation to the Salish Sea waters.

“Fifty-plus years is time for her to go home now, do the right thing,” Morris said. “Partner with us to do the right thing and bring her home.”

Morris said the Lummi and partners in the Salish Sea region are closing in on an “operational plan” for a sanctuary project in a protected ocean habitat. The goal is to show they have a comprehensive, multi-prong strategy to bring her back to the Salish Sea and properly care for her.

“We think we have more leverage negotiating with a completed operational plan showing we do know how to take care of her,” said Morris. “We’re not just Lummi indigenous people saying she belongs to us.”

‘Salish Sea World’

But as the Lummi call for Lolita’s return, a different battle is being waged in the dark waters of the Salish Sea where orcas migrate and forage for Chinook salmon in open waters and kelp forests alike.

Here, researchers as well as federal and state wildlife officials fear Lolita’s Southern Resident orca family is on a path to extinction.

Their population has cratered by roughly 25% from almost 100 in the mid-1990s. Scientists and marine biologists say the causes of their demise are three-fold: Reductions in wild salmon populations, increases in toxins in habitat waters and boat noise.

The latter has been the focus of an intense and often emotional battle between orca advocates and the thriving whale watching boat fleet that caters to tourists. After being routinely stiff-armed, the advocates won a major battle at the end of last year when Washington State officials announced stringent limits on commercial whale watch boats.

The rules create a seasonal buffer of one-half nautical mile, equivalent to 1,000 yards, between the orcas and commercial boats. In addition, for-fee whale watching is restricted to two, two-hour daily periods with a maximum number of three boast allowed per interval.

The whale watch industry association — which previously was kept to just 300 yards to 400 yards away from the Southern Residents — blasted the rules and continues to oppose them. 

“We are deeply concerned the recent decision to limit viewing of SRKWs for much of the year is not going to provide the targeted noise reduction benefits WDFW hopes to achieve in their recovery,” said Jeff Friedman, president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, in a statement. “Quite the contrary. Our ability to provide unmatched real-time information and communicate the endangered whales’ presence to shipping traffic, military vessels, numerous ferries, and the ever-increasing numbers of recreational vessels, will now be silenced for much of the year.”

But the rules were broadly supported, advocates say.

Donna Sandstrom, founder of the land-based Whale Trail network, noted that some 4,000 people spoke up in favor of the rules during the final comment period in December while just 200 backed the industry’s position.

“We are really happy that the fish and wildlife commission adopted rules to protect the Southern Residents,” said Sandstrom. “For the first time in history, this industry will be licensed with rules that protect the Southern Residents … The whales get more of their time and more of their space to themselves, so a better chance to forage.”

Sandstrom said the distance buffer, which took effect in late January, coincided with a key NOAA Fisheries report. That study showed that female Southern Resident orcas stop foraging for food in the presence of vessels closer than 400 yards.

“That’s the smoking gun,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. The females actually interrupt  their hunt when vessels approach.”

Sandstrom said the restrictions are all the more critical now that there are three more Southern Residents calves have been born since the fall.

“Hope is on the horizon. The whales are still trying,” she said. “But we have to give them the space they need, especially the nursing mothers. So they can find the food they need to survive and thrive.”

Sandstrom said she and other advocates calling for restrictions don’t oppose whale watching from boats.

“We would happily go aboard any boat to watch species when it’s sustainable for that species. That’s the trick,” she said. “It hasn’t been sustainable here for the Southern Residents for a very long time. The number of boats and the number of hours they operate is one factor making it hard for the whales to survive in the Salish Sea.”

Sandstrom had long lamented that the fervor for boat-based watching of the Southern Residents, over volumes of data pointing to adverse impact on the orcas, had turned the region into “Salish Sea World.”

As an alternative, Sandstrom said her organization began promoting watching the Southern Residents from shorelines along a trail of markers from northern California to southwestern Canada, where she notes there is a complete ban on commercial whale watching of the Southern Residents. Her group has posted 135 Whale Trail signs to denote spots where orcas and other marine life can be readily seen.

“We feel lucky and graced to share the Salish Sea with the Southern Residents who have lived here for tens of thousands of years, long before there were people here,” she said. “We appreciate the orcas for their own sake and want them to have safe passage through what has been their home.”

Sea turtles, manatees, corals and orcas

Whether it’s discussions about curing injured sea turtles or restoring corals or debates over boating rules to protect manatees or releasing captive orcas, the common theme playing out on opposite ends of the continent is the way humans view their role in alternately managing or profiting from a natural environment.

Whether people’s views have changed in wholesale fashion, or incrementally, is itself a matter of intense debate.

Campbell at Loggerhead Marinelife said there has been a shift in public interest, awareness and understanding that is being bolstered by a constant flow of new scientific findings and the ability to share that data fast and wide through social media.

“As we learn more about our human impact on the ocean and on the planet, more information is going to come out and better practices are going to be shared,” she said “And that allows not only individuals but also groups of people to hold facilities and organizations accountable for their practices and … and to what extent they will affect animals in order to introduce people to the wildlife.”

Barniskis at Mote agreed, but added that the public is an equal partner in the change by altering their expectation of the “entertainment” experience. 

“People going to attractions are still looking to be entertained but they are looking to be entertainment in a different way than maybe they used to,” Barniskis said. “Now they want to feel like that entertainment is actually providing good to the world. So they are searching out organizations that are giving back.”

But while human attitudes have changed, Kelly at ALDF said, that has not necessarily translated into laws and regulations to give animals sufficient protection.

“We think it’s really important to continue to pass strong legislation at the state and federal level to further protect these animals because, in so many cases at both levels, the legal protections are just not there,” she said.

The political will, some animal welfare advocates say, is sometimes lacking because the way people view the natural world hasn’t changed as much as perhaps we’d like to think it has.

Orca activist Sorrel North recalls being stunned two years ago in a courtroom in rural, northwestern Washington State amid brightly-colored tulip fields.

What dismayed and angered North was the ruling in a 2019 court case brought against her and her San Juan Island neighbors by whale watching companies. North and her group of concerned citizens had filed a petition to enact a boat-based whale watching ban in San Juan County waters surrounding the handful of islands nestled between mainland Washington State and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

That petition drew a lawsuit from the whale watch companies challenging the ballot initiative. During a hearing on the case, North recalls, an attorney for the companies defended the right of whale watch companies comparing the ballot initiative to a restraint of trade, such as one might seek to prevent the sale of “strawberry ice cream” and “panning for gold” at an amusement park.

“To me, what that says is all the good intentions, all the talk, all the meetings, all the planning comes to naught,” said the grandmother from the San Juan Islands archipelago in the Salish Sea. “That if we want to save these whales, we are going to have to intervene in some sort of much more extreme and immediate ways.”

Worse, North later fumed, the judge bought the argument.

“When people get on a boat to go whale watching there is at least the hope that they are going to see a whale,” the court ruled in tossing the ballot initiative. “If they are told that the whale is not going to be available or is available at a distant where they are basically not seeable due to sightlines or distant than it seems unlikely that people are going to want to go whale watching just as they are unlikely to pan for gold if there is no gold there to be seen. It is a low threshold for showing standing and plaintiffs have met that threshold.”

For North and her allies, the comparison of an endangered species to an inert product like ice cream or panning for gold at an amusement park was infuriating. And it was further proof that decades after humans ended the traumatic capture of whales, attitudes about the relationship of people to apex marine predators had not changed all that much.

The mentality that keeps a Lolita captive is the same warped viewpoint that paved the way to profit of her orca family even as it was clear the Southern Residents was a population in severe distress, she said. 

“I find that there is an incredible hypocrisy among these people — and not just the whale watching industry,” North said. “All of us are genuinely concerned about the whales. That’s not the issue. I believe all of these people genuinely care about the whales. But I find it to be very hypocritical to be making money off them at the same time you’re trying to save them. Because all of these ways of making money are not helping the whales. They’re not doing anything for the whales. The whales are just dying. They are suffering.”

Eventually, this year, state officials imposed restrictions on whale watching. But the ban the San Juan Islands group sought would have gone further. And it would have matched the unilateral moratorium in effect on Vancouver Island on the western side of the Haro Straits, a watery boundary between the United States and Canada.

One historian who has written extensively about the evolution of people’s views on animals said “things have changed” but there is a still a “fundamental tension” between humanity and wildlife that is bared in these disputes.

In the case of the Pacific orcas, Jason Colby, a professor at the University of Victoria, said whale watching from vessels isn’t the reason that the Southern Resident population is “crashing” but the business is arguably the “most visible reminder of people’s disruption on them.”

And the argument that so unsettled North, Colby said, revealed a certain level of financial self-entitlement that undermines to be protectors of the wildlife and champions of their welfare.

“These companies don’t stock these waters with orcas,” said Colby, author of Orca: How we came to know and love the ocean’s greatest predator. “The local ecosystem has produced them, and is under stress.”

It’s at these inflection points, Colby added, that people and businesses need to stop and self-constrain themselves.

“What I think would be more responsible for them to say is, ‘You know, we’re going to give them a break,” said Colby. “As opposed to claiming this free market argument. It’s interesting to see a couple of these companies basically make this bold claim that, essentially, we have this untrammeled right to go where we want with our customers.”

In fact, Colby said, the whale watching industry is missing an opportunity to take a stand by backing off the Southern Residents in return for governments removing damns to improve salmon populations.

“It would actually be a very powerful gesture for the whale watching industry to say that. And in turn ask for something like the removal of the damns from the Snake River as a sacrifice in that part of Washington State,” Colby said. “If you bring that sort of sacrifice that you’re willing to make for these animals that you say you care about and you are trying to get people to love, I think that would have been the more constructive response to this than to say we have an absolute right to go out despite what the science and federal law says.”

It also echoed the dark history of orca captures, he said. The profiteers of the 1960s and 1970s used the same argument, that the orcas were essentially a tradable commodity, to justify the brutal orca captures and sales.

“That touches upon some some really deep and unhealed wounds that helped put local orcas in trouble in the first place, which was their commodification in the 60s and 70s” said Colby. “Was this just an expedient argument? Or is this actually revealing a deeper truth that, at least some of these companies, see these animals as commodities for profit?”