After more than five decades of entertaining audiences from a tiny tank at the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita the orca could soon be transported to a sanctuary in her native waters in the Pacific Northwest.
During a press conference on March 30 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami, the Seaquarium announced that it had joined forces with the nonprofit group Friends of Toki and billionaire NFL team owner Jim Irsay to relocate the aging whale (also known as Tokitae or Toki) to a yet-to-be-built sanctuary in the Salish Sea. The marine park says the "historic deal" was made possible thanks to a "generous financial contribution" from Irsay.
Friends of Toki says that while a number of logistical obstacles remain, it hopes to resettle Lolita within the next 18 to 24 months.
“The story of Lolita the orca has been near and dear to my heart. I am proud and enthusiastic to play a role in finally returning Lolita to her native Pacific Northwest,” the Indianapolis Colts owner and CEO said.
The initiative marks a turning point in the plight of the famed killer whale, who has been crammed in an 80-by-35-foot concrete tank at Miami Seaquarium since 1970, when she was captured off the coast of Washington at around four years old in one of the last drive hunts for live orcas held in the Pacific Northwest.
While dozens of young orcas captured for U.S. aquatic parks either died during the captures or in captivity, Lolita survived at the Virginia Key marine park, performing thousands of shows for eager crowds.
Miami Seaquarium for decades rebuffed public protests and calls from animal rights groups to free the 7,000-pound whale from her tank, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) previously determined doesn't meet federally regulated size requirements. And while activists have long discussed creating a seaside sanctuary for Lolita to live out the rest of her life, these plans stalled amid staunch opposition from the Seaquarium's previous owners.
Circumstances changed, however, when Lolita, who is now in her mid-to-late 50s and nearing the end of typical orca life expectancy, fell ill with an infection that nearly killed her. She was removed from public exhibition last March and has not performed shows since. The USDA has not reissued an exhibition permit to the Seaquarium, meaning the park is no longer allowed to display Lolita or use her image for profit.
Last December, Miami Seaquarium's new owner, Eduardo Albor, revealed that he was open to moving the retired star performer from her tank to the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington state. He has since forged a partnership with Irsay and Friends of Toki, with Irsay providing significant funding for the move.
The project to relocate Lolita to the seaside sanctuary is expected to cost at least $15 million. Other details, however, remain sparse.
Pritam Singh, cofounder of Friends of Toki, said that his organization has already begun working with officials in Washington state, where they hope to transfer her, as well as federal agencies that must approve the move. He says the group has a meeting scheduled in D.C. next month to discuss the project.
"There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “But I think we’re up to the task."
The announcement from Miami Seaquarium comes on the heels of a report from a pair of independent veterinarians that found Lolita's health was improving — as well as the March 9 death of 47-year-old Kiska, Canada's last captive orca, whose fatal bacterial infection generated headlines across the globe and served as a reminder of how fragile older, captive orcas' health can be.
Some animal-rights activists remain skeptical that Lolita's health will hold up while the process to license and build a sanctuary plays out.
Jenna Wallace, an animal-rights advocate and veterinarian who has worked at marine parks across the country, says she lost confidence in Seaquarium's ability to care for Lolita and other marine mammals while employed at the park in 2021. Although the park and independent veterinarians, who were enlisted by Friends of Toki, have maintained that water quality issues in the whale tank have been fixed, Wallace has her doubts.
"Water quality was mentioned in multiple reports yet recent videos and photos of her pool as well as her overall chronic illnesses and inability to bounce back indicate the issues have likely not been resolved,” Wallace says.
She also questions the timing of Seaquarium's moves to retire and release Lolita.
"The media stated that Toki had been retired. Had she been retired or did her tiny pool with peeling paint fail the inspection? I believe it may have been easier and cheaper to 'retire' her rather than fix her pool,” says Wallace.
As for Lolita's transport, Wallace says, "I'll believe it when I see it."
At a recent townhall-style meeting, Albor maintained that he began contemplating Lolita's release while scoping out the Seaquarium with his family before his marine amusement-park company Dolphin Co. purchased it in 2021. He said that after his daughter pointed out how tight Lolita's quarters were, he resolved to make a change.
“With the support of all parties, the continued health of Lolita, and approvals from the appropriate authorities, we are all committed to giving this beautiful orca a new home and a peaceful future," Albor said in a March 30 statement.
According to the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita is receiving "round-the-clock care by a team of dedicated, highly-skilled, medical, nutrition, and behavior experts."
Activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has relentlessly advocated for Lolita's release, gathered outside the Miami Seaquarium during the March 30 press conference to celebrate the whale's long-awaited return home.
PETA president Ingrid Newkirk says she's hopeful that other people like Irsay who have "the resources to do good things" will deploy their wealth for worthy causes in the way he has. PETA released a statement thanking "every kind person who has spoken up for Lolita and other animals suffering in marine prisons."
"This success wouldn't have been possible without your help and support," PETA said.