52 years after its capture, the orca Lolita could return to its mother in the Pacific

MIAMI (AP) — More than 50 years after the orca known as Lolita was captured for public display, plans are in place to bring her from the Miami Seaquarium to her native waters in the Pacific Northwest, where a nearly century-old endangered killer whale believed to be its mother is still swimming around.

An unlikely coalition involving the theme park owner, an animal rights group and an NFL owner-philanthropist announced the deal at a press conference Thursday.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of Lolita’s journey to freedom,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “I know Lolita wants access to open waters.”

Lolita, also known as Tokitae, was about 4 years old when she was captured in Puget Sound in the summer of 1970, during a time of deadly orca roundups. She spent decades performing for paying crowds before falling ill.

Trainer Marcia Hinton pets Lolita, a captive killer whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, March 9, 1995. An unlikely coalition of a theme park owner, an advocacy group for animal rights, a mayor and a philanthropist who owns a The NFL team announced on Thursday, March 30, 2023 that a plan is in place to bring back Lolita – an orca who has lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for over 50 years old – in its native waters in the Pacific Northwest. (Nuri Vallbona/Miami Herald via AP, file)

Last year, the Miami Seaquarium announced it would no longer hold shows with her, under an agreement with federal regulators. Lolita – now 57 years old and weighing 5,000 pounds (2,267 kilograms) – currently lives in a tank that is 80 feet by 35 feet (24 meters by 11 meters) and 20 feet (6 meters) deep.

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The orca thought to be his mother, called Ocean Sun, continues to swim freely with other members of their clan – known as the L pod – and is believed to be over 90 years old. This gave supporters of his release optimism that Tokitae could still have a long life in the wild.

“This is a step towards restoring our natural environment, fixing what we have messed up with exploitation and development,” said Howard Garrett, chairman of the board of the advocacy group Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island in Washington State. “I think she’ll be delighted and relieved to be home – it’s her old neighborhood.”

The agreement between Irsay; Eduardo Albor, who runs The Dolphin Company, owner of the Seaquarium; and Florida-based nonprofit Friends of Toki, co-founded by environmentalist Pritam Singh; still faces hurdles in obtaining government approval.

The time frame to move the animal could be 18 to 24 months, the group said, and the cost could be as high as $20 million.

The plan is to airlift Lolita to an ocean sanctuary in the waters between Washington and Canada, where she will initially swim inside a large net while trainers and vets teach her how to catch fish.

She will also need to build muscle, as killer whales typically swim about 100 miles (60 kilometers) a day, said Raynell Morris, an elder from the Lummi Indian tribe in Washington who also sits on the Friends of Toki board.

“She was 4 when she was abducted, so she was learning to hunt. She knows her family song,” Morris said. “She will remember, but it will take time.

The orca would be cared for around the clock until it acclimated to its new environment.

Seaquarium keepers are already preparing her for the trip, officials said.

The Dolphin Company took ownership of the Seaquarium in 2021. It operates some 27 other parks and habitats in Mexico, Argentina, the Caribbean and Italy.

The legacy of the whale roundups of the 1960s and 1970s continues to haunt a distinct group of endangered salmon-eating orcas known as southern resident killer whales who spend much of their time in the waters between Washington and Canada.

At least 13 orcas died in the roundups and 45 were delivered to theme parks around the world, reducing Puget Sound’s resident population by about 40% and helping to cause inbreeding issues that remain a problem today. .

Today, only 73 remain in the southern resident population, which includes three family groups called pods, according to the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Washington. That’s just two more animals than in 1971.

Animal rights advocates, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have long fought for Tokitae to spend his final years at home in a controlled setting.

Activists often demonstrate along the road that runs alongside the Seaquarium, which they have called an “abuse park”. PETA says it doesn’t want Lolita to suffer the same fate as her partner Hugo, who died in 1980 of a brain aneurysm after repeatedly hitting his head against the walls of the tank.

Albor said Thursday that when his company bought the Seaquarium, he and his daughter came as tourists. He said his daughter got upset watching the Lolita show, even as many others in the crowd cheered.

Her daughter told her “this place is too small for Lolita” and made her promise to help the orca if her company bought the park.

“It has always been our commitment at The Dolphin Company that we place the highest priority on animal welfare above all else,” Albor said. “Finding a brighter future for Lolita is one of our reasons for acquiring the Miami Seaquarium.”

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava called the relocation plan historic, saying, “So many people have hoped and prayed for this outcome for many, many years.”

The Seaquarium opened in 1955 in Virginia Key, east of downtown Miami. It features a variety of creatures including dolphins, sea lions, manatees, reef fish and sharks, and has been the filming location for 88 episodes of the TV series “Flipper” as well as films in the 1960s.


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