More than 50 years ago, an orca called Lolita was captured for public display. Now plans are in place to return her from the Miami Seaquarium in Florida to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest. That’s where a nearly century-old, endangered killer whale believed to be her mother still swims.
An unlikely coalition involving the theme park’s owner, Eduardo Albor, Florida nonprofit Friends of Toki, and NFL owner-philanthropist Jim Irsay announced the agreement during a news conference Thursday.
Lolita is also known as Tokitae. She was about four years old when she was captured in Puget Sound off the Washington state coast in summer 1970. She spent decades performing for paying crowds before falling ill.
Last year, the Miami Seaquarium announced it would no longer stage shows with her, under an agreement with federal regulators. Lolita is now 57 years old and 5,000 pounds. She currently lives in a tank that measures 80 feet by 35 feet and is 20 feet deep.
The orca believed to be her mother, called Ocean Sun, swims free with other members of a family group known as L pod. Ocean Sun is estimated to be more than 90 years old. That’s why some believe that Tokitae could still have a long life in the wild.
“It’s a step toward restoring our natural environment,” says Howard Garrett, president of the board of the advocacy group Orca Network. “I think she’ll be excited and relieved to be home—it’s her old neighborhood.”
The agreement still must gain government approval. The time frame for moving the animal could be 18 to 24 months away. The cost could reach $20 million.
The plan is to transport Lolita by plane to an ocean sanctuary in the waters between Washington and Canada. There she will initially swim inside a large net while trainers and veterinarians teach her how to catch fish.
She will also have to build up her muscles, as orcas typically swim about 100 miles per day, says Raynell Morris, who serves on the board of Friends of Toki.
“She was four when she was taken, so she was learning to hunt. She knows her family song,” Morris says. “She’ll remember, but it will take time.”
The orca will be under 24-hour care until she acclimates to her new surroundings.
Lolita came from a group of endangered, salmon-eating orcas known as the southern resident killer whales. These orcas spend much of their time in the waters between Washington and Canada. In the 1960s and ’70s, people held whale round-ups. At least 13 orcas died in the roundups and 45 were delivered to theme parks.
Today only 73 orcas remain in the southern resident population, according to the Center for Whale Research. That’s just two more than in 1971.
Animal rights advocates have long fought for Tokitae to spend her final years back home.
Albor says that when his company was buying the Seaquarium, he and his daughter visited. He said his daughter became upset while watching Lolita’s show. She told him, “This place is too small for Lolita.” She made him promise to help the orca if his company bought the park.
“It has always been our commitment at The Dolphin Company that we place the highest priority on the well-being of the animals above all else,” Albor says. “Finding a better future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium.”
(A trainer pets Lolita the orca during a 1995 performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida. Nuri Vallbona/Miami Herald via AP)