For more than 50 years, a wild Southern resident orca — known to many as “Lolita,” to others as Tokitae, and to the Lummi tribe as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut — has spent her life in cruel captivity, forced to perform for cheering crowds and then relegated reportedly to the smallest orca tank in the world at a Florida aquarium.
But now, a binding agreement between the new management of that aquarium and nonprofit group Friends of Lolita means she could be returned to her native waters within the next two years.
The Miami Seaquarium, along with Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and other officials, announced the official plans to return Lolita to her home waters in the Salish Sea at a recent press conference.
“This is such a special creature who is loved by so many people around the world,” Cava said during the conference. “So many are concerned about her well-being after decades of being in a small tank. Here we are looking at the real possibility that she will spend the rest of her life in nature’s waters and live freely.”
The relocation hopefully will take place in the next 18 to 24 months, said Edward Albor, chair of the Dolphin Company, which manages the Seaquarium.
The plan still requires federal approval. Details of Lolita’s relocation — estimated to cost between $10 million and $20 million, and likely involving a plane and special equipment to safely unload her — also haven’t yet been finalized.
But the efforts will be supported by a “generous contribution” from Jim Irsay, the owner and CEO of NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.
“I am doing it because I have loved whales since being a kid, and to me she is an inspiration,” Irsay told news.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the number of Southern Resident orcas in Washington’s Puget Sound fluctuated drastically, with many of the precious animals captured and shipped off to marine parks.
Lolita was captured and removed from her wild pod from a cove off Seattle in the 1970s when she was four years old. Now 57, the orca is reportedly the sole survivor from those cruel captures and the oldest orca currently in captivity.
In the decades when she was cruelly forced to perform tricks for people’s “entertainment,” Lolita survived the deaths of other orcas, numerous health issues, and being kept in a tank that multiple welfare organizations alleged was far too small.
Calls to free Lolita skyrocketed after the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” documented the cruelty of orca captivity, and then again in 2015 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration added orcas to the endangered species list.
Advocates campaigning for Lolita’s freedom included members of the Lummi Nation, who staged years-long protests to bring her home.
“This is our sacred obligation to bring her back,” said Freddie Lane, a Lummi Nation Council member, during protests in 2019.
During a 2020 protest, Lummi Nation member Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris added, “Under our inherent rights, she’s a relative. We have a right to call her home.”
Lolita retired from performing in 2022, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an exhibitor’s license on the conditions that neither Lolita nor Lii, a white-sided dolphin, would continue to be used for public performances.
As recently as a few weeks before the announcement of the orca’s planned release, news reported that Lolita’s health had seriously declined since then and that the orca was fighting for her life.
Happily, she seems to be recovering.
But other organizations fighting for Lolita’s release also said the announcement is long overdue.
“This is all about the whale,” said Charles Vinnick, executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project. “All that matters is the whale.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has sued several times on Lolita’s behalf, said Lolita’s release would cause “cheers from around the world.”
“If the Seaquarium agrees to move her, it’ll offer her long-awaited relief after five miserable decades in a cramped tank and send a clear signal to other parks that the days of confining highly intelligent, far-ranging marine mammals to dismal prisons are done and dusted,” said Jared Goodman, general counsel for the PETA Foundation.
To help orcas like Lolita, sign our petition urging US legislators to ban the cruel confinement of these complex and sensitive animals, and remember to never visit any place that exploits orcas or any animal for “entertainment.”