Chicago, IL

Lolita Strategic Vision — Release to a Sea Sanctuary

Update 2023

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Introduction to our Strategic vision

Since we wrote this document in 2015 – We have identified several other sea sanctuary locations with deep water and currents that could may be better suited for a sea sanctuary than Rosario Resort herein. It is possible that the water at Rosario is polluted. Lastly, this is not a plan, this is our strategic vision looking at some aspects of moving Lolita to a sea sanctuary that include some creative ideas. We have also dug into some some topics we believed should be considered if she is moved, see links below.

When we wrote this document there was talk about having her join her family, this report was written from that perspective. To us, the idea of returning her to family fulltime may not be realistic based on the research we did on Keiko, Springer, and Luna. Then of course we have Kiska whose sea pen couldn’t be built fast enough and she died in captivity, this is a very realistic possibility for Lolita despite the claims she is strong and has survived so much already another example of humans claiming to “know” her based on her signs/signals (semiotics) and anthropomorphizing (Daniel Moto-Rojas et al., Anthropomorphism and Its Adverse Affects, 2021)Additionally, after we wrote this essay, we considered new information, each new addition will be noted by the words “Update 2023”. 

Mota-Rojas D, Mariti C, Zdeinert A, Riggio G, Mora-Medina P, Del Mar Reyes A, Gazzano A, Domínguez-Oliva A, Lezama-García K, José-Pérez N, Hernández-Ávalos I. Anthropomorphism and Its Adverse Effects on the Distress and Welfare of Companion Animals. Animals (Basel). 2021 Nov 15;11(11):3263. doi: 10.3390/ani11113263. PMID: 34827996; PMCID: PMC8614365.

What Is The Business Plan? 

Our primary concern  is how is Lolita project going to be funded? It has been reported in the media that Keiko cost $500,000 a day in the late 1990’s while he was in Oregon and then it was also reported that the total cost for Keiko was $22M. On March 30, 2023 Lummi Nation was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying the project will cost about $15,000,000 million dollars. stated the project estimate to be between $15,000,000 and $20,000,000. Who is going to pay for this and will there be a sustainable funding plan for the decades to come? 

To date we have not seen a business plan that takes into account the operating expenses of the day to day care of Lolita. The costs will be astronomical and unsustainable for a long period of time. We believe that some type of eco-resort could be attached to the sanctuary to generate revenue to help offset the millions of dollars that will be required to care for Lolita; if she survives the Miami Seaquarium, the move and the migration to a new sea water habitat. 

~ Lauren Rhone


This report is dedicated to all of the remarkable beings I know and those I have never met living a life of unfulfilled dreams. ~LAR



Our idea — Crowdsource Possibilties

perspectives from university students – Update 2023

This work was done in 2015

Lolita — Our concerns

In 2015 we reviewed two public plans for the rehab and release of Lolita, a Southern Resident Killer Whale, currently residing at the Miami Seaquarium. The plan authors, Orca Network and Orca Conservancy have made their plans public via their individual websites. 2023: Orca Conservancy has unpublished their plan. Both of these plans focused on reunited Lolita with her family and rejoining her pod which we contend could be dangerous to her mental and physical health, and is an example of anthropomorphizing her wishes through a human lens.

We became concerned about “gaps” in the short and long term strategic planning portions of their Lolita Rehab and Release Plans. We believe that this strategic vision has potential solutions that reside somewhere between a marine park environment and a full rehab and release sanctuary which expects that Lolita will reunite permanently with her wild family.

Our primary concerns include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Lolita’s short, mid and long term well-being 
  • Location 
  • Water quality, Air Temperature, Weather 
  • Whale walk boat/vessel design 
  • Impact on local community and surrounding ecosystem 
  • Financial and environmental sustainability of a long term program

Choosing the location for a sea sanctuary for marine mammals is an extremely challenging and difficult issue to overcome. Many locations are unsuitable for a variety of factors some of which include: 

  • Rugged coastlines 
  • Lack of public access or service roads 
  • No existing pier or housing structures 
  • Depth of water 
  • Power generation 
  • Lack of multi-use opportunities 
  • Unable to secure community support 
  • Federal, State and Local permits for the operation of such a facility 
  • Uncertainty related to “renting” a site for a project that could potentially turn out to be a decades long initiative.
  • Not suitable for long term sustainability of staff members– which could result in high turnover of employees who are unable to achieve work-life balance through other holistic endeavors.
  • Additionally, at this time, the permit process required to develop a sea sanctuary property is not well understood.

Lolita — what if she wants to hang in her pen?

Serious consideration must be given to what will happen to Lolita in the event that she chooses to stay in the sea sanctuary area. We believe she has been strongly imprinted to humans which could affect her rehab and release. Lolita’s “sense of species” likely has been directly influenced and possibly changed by being in the care of humans for decades. Her agency has been stripped by her human caretakers. They decide when, where, what she will eat, when she will perform and when she will rest. Lolita’s ability to exercise choice has been severely compromised. If she were rehabbed and released she may or may not choose to join her family full time. Update 2023: there has been some discussion about adding two dolphin companions to her sea sanctuary, there have been some reports that Lolita is commonly bullied by the dolphins at the Seaquarium, if true, why would they release her to sanctuary where she would not feel safe?

Hybrid Situation – will she be safe?

Another possibility is that she may come and go in some sort of “hybrid” situation — visiting her family and coming back to the location for human interaction. Any location that is chosen for her rehab and release must take this into account and business strategies must be in place to possibly provide care, food and veterinary services for Lolita for potentially decades. After studying the rehab and release of Keiko “Free Willy”, we concluded that with proper planning and a sustainable business strategy for the rehab and release of Lolita, we are confident that she will not be abandoned at any phase of the project. She will be well taken care of in lieu of the choices she makes with respect to her life.

What about the weather in Puget sound?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Lolita is currently residing in Miami Florida. According to Current Results website Miami has 249 days of sunshine per year. Seattle experiences 164 days of sunshine per year. We are curious about the impact on Lolita’s mental health if her sun exposure was decreased by approximately 36%; specifically, whether or not she would develop Seasonal Affective Disorder in her new home. If Lolita did develop SAD in her seapen, it could greatly impact her desire to join her pod. At this time, we do not have anything specific to share regarding this concern; however, we believe more research needs to be done on this subject and how it might impact Lolita’s mental status and possible outcomes and solutions to this issue should it arise. Update 2023: Current research on this topic has shown the potential for SAD in Rhesus macaque monkeys. There is ongoing research into this topic, references here

We assert that with a proper site location, proper engineering of a sea sanctuary environment, and proper water filtration, these issues could be mitigated if they are determined to potentially have adverse effects on Lolita’s overall health and well-being. Air and Water Temperature Graphs Miami vs Puget Sound. 

water and air temperature miami vs puget sound

Another item of concern for us was what impact would water and air temperature have on Lolita, or other captive marine mammals. We know she is currently residing in a controlled environment and we decided to take a look at the monthly differences in air and water temperature in Puget Sound vs Miami Seaquarium tank and air temperature differences between the two locations.

water temperature

Update 2023: Current research that suggests changes in water temperature can impact a whales immune system and cause physical and emotional stress potentially leading to disease. Water temperature in Puget Sound may be at a lower temperature than her current pool in Miami.

Water Quality

Most captive marine mammals are currently residing in somewhat sterile environments with complex water filtration and temperature regulation systems. We believe any sea pen or sea sanctuary should take water quality issues very seriously and neither of the plans that are publicly available address this issue. We are also concerned about the impact a sea pen or sanctuary may have on the environment and surrounding community. Our idea is to minimize the impact on the local ecosystem and area surrounding a protected sea sanctuary.

Some challenges to sea sanctuary water quality that could affect the health of marine mammals include but are not limited to:

Potential Challenges

Potential Solutions

*We contacted numerous experts in the field and were unable to determine the daily volume of scat an orca produces. This is a potential topic for research if this has not been studied before.

**We have contacted Pentair Corporation on numerous occasions and to date have not received a response.

***Chris Spaulding, Aquarium Science Program Director stated in an email dated July 16, 2015 that: “This would be possible given that the cove is isolated from the ocean with a solid wall or barrier. This would be a huge endevour but could be done with proper engineering. The goal to keep pathogens out would be difficult but isolating the seawater on the ocean side from the enclosure would prevent this and isolate the animals. Natural seawater could be pumped through a filtration system that in turn recirculated the water and flow in the cove allowing for heating. The filtration system would in turn also be designed to provide adequate oxygen levels to the enclosure. It would be a challenging project and design but could be accomplished given the appropriate resources.”

Subject Matter Experts Necessary

Clearly, subject matter experts need to be more formally engaged in the process to discuss the above issues in greater detail. This would allow the team to determine the overall feasibility and predict potential outcomes when attempting to solve water quality and temperature issues, and the unknown impact of the lower number of sunny days in Puget Sound.

Vessel Design

Update 2023: We had an idea to design a special vessel for Lolita, therefore we did some research surrounding that idea.

Killer whales can be aggressive towards other killer whales in the wild and in captivity. We do not fully understand all of the nuances related to why these acts of aggression take place between whales. However, we know they occur and we want to recognize that re-uniting Lolita with her pod may create a situation that could put Lolita in harm’s way and endanger her life. The potential reality of this happening in the open ocean led me to think in greater detail about a pragmatic approach to open ocean training of Lolita and how to safely introduce Lolita to L-Pod and her mother Ocean Sun.

We also spent a considerable amount of time watching videos of open ocean rehab and release of whales and dolphins with a focus on the types of boats and vessels used to carry out open ocean whale walks, netting killer whales, sling carries of marine mammals, etc. We came to the conclusion that a vessel designed for this purpose could greatly improve the chances of keeping Lolita safe and could serve other purposes such as future marine mammal rehab and releasevessel, rescue operations of large marine mammals, and oil spill cleanup or some other meaningful re-purposing.

We reached out to several Naval Architects and received an immediate response from Dr. Chris McKesson, Instructor at University of British Columbia, School of Naval Architecture. 7 Dr. McKesson is a passionate engineer with an emphasis on innovative projects that have a positive impact on marine life.

In September 2015, Dr. McKesson felt that it would be a very interesting student project to design a vessel that could potentially meet the following criteria:

Potential Site

Update 2023: While we no longer feel this is good site for her, this is what we considered in 2015. We still like the idea of an eco-resort to provide housing for trainers, veterinarians and eco-conscious individuals to help offset the costs of her daily care which we know will be enormous. We do not believe donations alone is a sustainable solution for her ongoing care. Should she join her pod or stay in the pen for the rest of her life, upon her death or if she leaves the pen permanently, the pen could be repurposed for rehabilitation of future marine mammals.

For the purposes of this report we are not including a discussion regarding the transport of Lolita from Miami to the Pacific Northwest. The transport of killer whales is well documented and the budget dollar amount is fairly predictable and easy to obtain from prior transports of killer whales. As mentioned previously, this plan focuses on location, water quality/temp, air temperature, vessel design, financial and environmental sustainability of a long-term sea sanctuary environment. Below we summarize the proposed location, and discuss issues and ideas related to the financial and environmental sustainability of this project.

Rosario Resort — History of Ownership

The Rosario Resort is a 75 acre property located on Cascade Bay, Orcas Island, Washington. The property is owned by the Barto Family of Signal Hill Petroleum. Jerrel Barto is the co-founder of Signal Hill and has 3 children, two of them work in the family petroleum business, are regular donors to the Republican Party and have hosted a dinner for John Boehner. Jerrel has one daughter named Rochelle Barto-Rabago who we believe is a supporter of National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood. 

Her husband Steven Rabago is the founder of, a person to person lending platform. Rochelle and Steven have a home on Bainbridge Island, Washington. In 1938 Rosario Resort was sold for $50k, in 1958 it was sold for $488k, sold again in 1960 for $255k and in 1980 the Rosario Resort was sold at auction for approximately $5.5M. The property has changed hands numerous times since 1980 without appreciating in value.

In 2008 Jerrel Barto purchased Rosario at auction for $5.45 million. It has been reported by previous Rosario owners that the resort loses approximately $1M a year due to operating at a loss in the off season which is estimated to be 7 months out of the year. Olympus Real Estate Partners, the previous owner, believed that the resort would only be financially viable if it could be re-developed for mixed-use. 10 A master re-development plan, which took years to
develop and get approved, was developed by Mike Usen and is still available on the San Juan County website.

Update 2023: Rosario Resort — for sale again

As of March 2023, Rosario resort if for sale again for $15M, another $2.5M buys water rights. 

Rosario Reinvented

Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is a tourist destination that has many amenities for visitors and residents alike. Our initial research has indicated that Orcas Island is not as popular as Friday Harbor due to lack of restaurants and shopping. Additionally, anecdotal reports indicate that the majority of Orcas
Island full time inhabitants share progressive liberal values and are resistant to any corporate re-development or change of any kind.

We believe that the above issues could be overcome by re-development that takes a holistic approach to the property and surrounding community which would include Orcas residents as stakeholders. We believe that a governing tenet of Rosario re-development must emphasize little to no impact on the local
land and marine ecosystems and offer a positive transformation that impacts island residents.

Safe Harbor for Lolita

If Rosario Resort were purchased and developed as a sea sanctuary it would literally offer safe harbor to Lolita in the event she desires to maintain contact with humans. However, the long term cost of feeding Lolita cannot be ignored and has to be considered. Example: An estimated 2100 lbs of fish has to be sourced weekly, brought to the resort via Ferry or plane; and stored in a freezer.

University students could the study rehab and release of marine life and the changes that marine mammals undergo as they are moving from a captive marine park environment to sea sanctuary environment and potentially to the wild.

In comparison to other rehab and release plans purchasing the Rosario Resort with the intent to provide safe harbor for Lolita, should she need it, provides a level of protection to Lolita that the Orca Network and Orca Conservancy plans do not provide.

The resort complex is an environment and location to sustain a small population of staff members that could potentially be caring for Lolita should she keep coming back to Rosario, or live there exclusively. If Lolita chooses to join her family the sea sanctuary could continue to be an operating base for other marine mammal rehab and release projects. With 56 orcas in captivity around the world, this sanctuary could prove to be a ground breaking model for other sanctuaries around the globe.

Rosario Multi-Use Development

We believe that the Rosario Resort could be purchased, improved and re-developed to operate as: 

Financial sustainability

In order to fund long term sea sanctuary operations, revenue has to be generated from the resort development, tourists, corporate sponsorships and other collaborative partnerships.

Orcas Island – First Carbon Neutral Island in the US?

Update 2023: In April 2020 the Environmental and Energy Study Institute published the article titled “Washington State Islands Work Towards a Fossil-Fuel-Free Future”

In addition to re-developing the property we would be interested in finding out if the local community would and OPALCO would like to work towards being the first carbon neutral island in the US.  We believe this is possible based on current energy initiatives in the San Juan Islands.*

Energy Initiatives on Orcas Island

We have spent a limited time researching energy initiatives on Orcas Island. Clearly more work has to be done.

Orcas Power and Light Co-Op (OPALCO) is a non-profit, member co-op that provides electrical services to Orcas Island. Power is generally hydro-electric generated and delivered via submarine cables to the island.

The San Juan Island Conservation District has an initiative called “Island Energy”. Here is an excerpt from their mission statement which can be found on their website:

As islanders, we have a strong sense of place – a place where majestic orcas roam the waters, where breathtaking views are commonplace, and where the power and strength of community is boundless. Our geographic remoteness increases our awareness of our vulnerabilities, but also contributes to our resourcefulness. We are aware of climate change and ocean acidification and
the need for energy resiliency, and we know we must transform how we generate and use energy. We need an energy plan that addresses these challenges and charts a course of action.

It appears that the residents of the San Juan Islands have a strong interest in clean energy. The San Juan Island Conservation District just published a comprehensive collaborative plan that engages stakeholders from all aspects of the community which include but is not limited to educational institutions, country managers, consultants, OPALCO and business owners. Jeff Morris Washington, Representative of the 40th legislative district just introduced a bill that provides an exit strategy for coal plants.

*We have several research assistants working on developing theoretical models for next generation robotics applications for the sea sanctuary and looking at ways to power sea pen operations with a carbon neutral footprint.

First Sea Sanctuary in US

We believe that the Rosario Resort could be purchased and re-developed to operate as a sea sanctuary and marine biology center in partnership with a university marine biology program, a tourist destination, model carbon neutral community, and energy conference destination. This redevelopment would improve the lives of the year round residents of Orcas Island by providing jobs and could potentially improve financial security to island residents and
have minimal impact on the environment. If done properly the impact on Lolita would be immeasurable to her quality of life. Giving her the opportunity to exercise her natural history, and make choices on her behalf would be precedent-setting. A sea sanctuary would provide hope and opportunity where there is none and be groundbreaking in redefining the relationship between humans and marine mammals.