If you've lived in Miami longer than a single Heat season, you've likely heard about the plight of one of the city's longtime residents: Lolita. The 7,000-pound orca has been living and performing at Miami Seaquarium in Key Biscayne since 1970.
Lolita, whose birth name is Tokitae, is in a unique situation. The last remaining orca captured between 1968 and 1972, she has spent the past 44 years in the smallest tank for an animal her size in North America.
For decades, animal advocates have been fighting for her release, and with the widespread popularity of the award-winning documentary Blackfish, awareness of her situation has grown exponentially. The Miracle March for Lolita January 17 hopes to attract 1,000 supporters in a show of solidarity they hope will persuade officials to free her, once and for all.
The march will be silent, says organizer Robin Jewell Roberts. "We are letting our numbers speak for us." She anticipates more than a thousand participants, "the largest in our history for sure." A Change.org petition started by Roberts has garnered more than 51,000 signatures. Sister events will happen in London, Germany, Seattle, Colorado Springs, San Diego, Las Vegas, and possibly Canada.
"We are hoping that the march will show the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] the support for Lolita's endangerment status that will be decided at the end of January," Roberts says.
Lolita's tank measures a mere 60 by 80 feet, shockingly small when seen from above (as recent drone footage demonstrates). Per federal guidelines, Lolita's tank size is substandard, but because she's been in residence so long, her abysmal living conditions have been "grandfathered" in under the law. In the wild, these incredibly intelligent, social mammals swim an estimated 100 miles a day.
Lolita was taken from her family in a heartbreaking roundup in Washington state's Puget Sound in 1970 and then transported to the Seaquarium. Initially, Lolita shared confinement with another orca, Hugo, before he killed himself in 1980 by bashing his head against the tank wall multiple times. She hasn't seen another of her kind since.
In May 2014, speculation surfaced about whether the new owner of the Seaquarium, the amusement park company Palace Entertainment, would release Lolita. Thus far, her situation hasn't changed.
But if Lolita were freed, what would happen to her?
Amazingly, Lolita's extended family still lives in the waters off Washington state, and her mother is believed to be alive. If advocates succeeded in their mission, Lolita would, ideally, be re-released to join her kin.
"She still speaks the dialect exclusive to her family. Being highly intelligent and sentient beings, she and her family should quickly remember each other by dialect," Roberts explains. "They have learned behavior as we do, and her family can reteach her to hunt and be in the wild once again."
Roberts and her partners -- which include OrcaBall, Origami Whale Project, and Blackfish Brigade -- hope the march will encourage NOAA to list Lolita in the Endangered Species Act, thereby facilitating her release. Everyone concerned with Lolita's welfare is encouraged to attend.
The march will take place Saturday, January 17, beginning at 10 a.m. (though attendees should arrive by 8 a.m.) at Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Dr., Miami. Donations to the cause can be made online at gofundme.com/freelolita or via PayPal to the email address email@example.com. For more information, visit miraclemarchforlolita.com.
Follow Hannah on Twitter @hannahgetshappy.