After suffering from a severe infection last year, Lolita the orca's condition has improved, fueling hope that the whale could be returned to her native waters following a five-decade stint amusing crowds from a crammed 80-by-35-foot concrete tank at Miami Seaquarium.
In a report released in late February, a pair of independent veterinarians working alongside the nonprofit Friends of Toki and Miami Seaquarium found that the killer whale, also known as Tokitae, is showing signs of "significant improvement and better health."
The progress opens up the possibility that Lolita, the second oldest orca in captivity at roughly 57 years old, could be transported out of Miami-Dade County and back home to the Pacific Northwest — where her relatives, including the 93-year-old whale believed to be her mother, still reside.
"It’s too early to get excited," reads the February 28 report (attached below), "however, there is reason to allow some optimism to enter the discussion."
Miami Seaquarium for decades has rebuffed public protests and calls from animal rights groups to free the 7,000-pound killer whale from her tank, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture previously determined doesn't meet federally regulated size requirements. Last year, Lolita's health began to deteriorate as she fought a chronic infection and showed signs of respiratory and blood abnormalities.
Under new ownership and in light of her failing health, the Seaquarium last March announced the retirement of its star performer. In a surprise statement in December 2022, CEO Eduardo Albor of the Dolphin Company, the aquatic park's new owner, said that he and his staff are "100 percent committed" to efforts to release Lolita.
The recent health update appears to put Lolita one step closer to returning home.
"She looks good clinically although it was reported that she occasionally seemed uncomfortable, while still eating and responding well to [her] trainer’s behavior requests. Her white blood cell parameters continue to improve with a number of values nearing levels we have not observed in many months," the evaluation by veterinarians James McBain and Stephanie Norman states.
The promising report notes that in February, the whale's condition, as well as her energy, appetite, and engagement in daily activities, remained stable.
But as noted by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), a move would have major obstacles such as receiving permits from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and determining that Lolita is healthy enough to survive the stress of a transfer from Miami to the Pacific Northwest.
Funds would also be required to locate the site for a sanctuary and build the infrastructure necessary to care for Lolita.
"Many have advocated for Tokitae’s return for many years," the IMMP said on its blog last week. "Perhaps that return will happen if remaining barriers can be overcome."
Sacred Sea, an indigenous-led nonprofit, has worked with the Whale Sanctuary Project on a plan to transport Lolita to a proposed sanctuary nearby where she was reared as a calf. The groups have described the sanctuary as a "secure and protected area within the Salish Sea" off the coast of Washington state, where the whale "can thrive in her natal waters while receiving ongoing human care."
The Whale Sanctuary Project meanwhile has been working on the design for a sea pen in Port Hilford Bay in Nova Scotia, with more than 100 acres of aquatic space and a depth of 54 feet. The pen would be enclosed with a net and include a walkway for staff members to observe and provide medical care to captive whales that have been released.
Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, said that the recent death of Kiska, an orca at Canada Marineland, should serve to galvanize efforts to release other aging, captive whales. At an estimated age of 47, Kiska died of a bacterial infection at the Canadian amusement park on March 9.
"Despite being a member of a highly social species, [Kiska] was forced to spend the last twelve years of her life in complete isolation without the company of a single member of her own kind," Marino wrote.
Lolita has been in captivity at Miami Seaquarium since 1970, when she was captured in Puget Sound 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 aquatic parks around the U.S. either died during the captures or in captivity, Lolita has survived for more than fifty years inside a tiny tank on Virginia Key.