Talks to release Lolita the orca, also known as Tokitae, from captivity have been discussed for years. Now, it seems she could be released from Miami Seaquarium after over 50 years in captivity.
Officials have announced this week, 30 March, that the Miami Seaquarium, where Lolita is held, and animal welfare advocates Friends of Lolita have reached an agreement to release Lolita from captivity.
This has been a process years in the making that shifted into gear when the aquarium changed ownership to The Dolphin Co, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a conference.
Who is Lolita? – captive for over 50 years
Like many captive orcas, Lolita was captured from her ocean home and moved to an ocean aquarium for entertainment in 1970 when she was four years old.
Lolita, who is currently the second-oldest orca in captivity at 57 years old, was taken along with six other wild orcas from Penn Cove, Puget Sound, Washington. These orcas were then sold to marine mammal parks around the world.
This came as part of a capture of over 80 whales conducted by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry, partners in an operation known as Namu, Inc.
Lolita was purchased by Miami Seaquarium in 1970, where she has remained ever since. Her tankmate, Hugo, died in 1980, meaning she has been largely alone for the past 43 years.
As of 2022, she was retired from performing and being on public display due to a new license with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Returned to natal waters – bringing Lolita home
It was announced on 30 March that after over 50 years in captivity, Lolita will be returned to her natal waters in the Pacific Northwest.
This does not mean that Lolita will be returned entirely to the native oceans, something that would be almost impossible due to her reliance on humans in the past 50 years. One of Lolita’s tankmates, a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Li’i, will also be released with her.
The plan to release the marine mammals includes acclimating and transporting the pair, as well as another Pacific white-sided dolphin companion called Loki, into a sea pen in the Salish Sea of the Pacific Northwest.
The process will cost between $15 and $20 million, most of which will be funded by Indianapolis Colts owner and philanthropist Jim Irsay. Irsay predicts the process will take between six to nine months to get her out. However, this time frame is not “locked in”.
Bring Lolita home – the second whale to be released from captivity
Only one captive orca has ever been released back from where they were once taken. That orca was Keiko, the famous whale who played Willy in the 1993 movie Free Willy.
While in captivity, Keiko was known for being involved in the deaths of three people. This was something anti-captivity protesters always said was a consequence of forced captivity.
Keiko only survived for two years upon his release. However, the difference is that he was released fully into the wild, while Lolita will live out her days in a sea pen.
In terms of remaining family in the wild, people have long suspected that Lolita’s mother is an orca named Ocean Sun. She is a 95-year-old killer whale considered the oldest living southern resident orca.