After 50 years in captivity, Lolita the orca whale is set to be returned to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest, where she was captured in the 1970s.
The Miami Seaquarium announced its plans to move Lolita to an ocean sanctuary near her place of origin, in a move that has been celebrated by animal welfare organizations across the world.
According to NBC News, Lolita was taken from the wild when she was just four years old, making her around 57 years old today, and the oldest orca whale in captivity.
Over the years, Lolita’s health has had its ups and downs, but experts describe her as being in “remarkably good shape” considering her age.
Lolita has lived in one of North America’s smallest whale tanks and has been the sole orca whale at the Miami Seaquarium since her tank-mate Hugo died in 1980.
The Miami Seaquarium, which has recently been acquired by The Dolphin Company, has faced criticism for its care of Lolita, with a report from the USDA released in 2021 citing concerns over her feeding and water intake.
However, an independent assessment in June found that the whale was in better health following adjustments made to her care by The Dolphin Company.
At a press conference, representatives from the Miami Seaquarium announced that they have begun the process of returning Lolita to her home waters by creating a legally binding agreement between The Dolphin Company and Friends of Lolita, a nonprofit organization created to help Lolita.
The relocation effort has received a generous contribution from philanthropist Jim Irsay, who is also the owner of the Indianapolis Colts.
“Dinner before today’s Lolita press conference in Miami Beach! Key players in the massive plan to finally FREE this 8000 lb killer whale, Lolita!!” Irsay posted on Twitter ahead of the announcement. “The story of Lolita 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,” he added in a statement released by the Miami Seaquarium.
The new operators of the Miami Seaquarium, The Dolphin Company, have expressed their commitment to the well-being of animals, with CEO Eduardo Albor saying, “finding a better future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium.”
Animal welfare organizations have hailed the news of Lolita’s impending release. “After 52 years, Tokitae’s time languishing in the smallest orca tank is finally coming to an end,” said Nicole Barrantes, a wildlife campaign manager with World Animal Protection. “We can’t wait to see her living in the wild under some continued human care, preferably in her home seas where she belongs.”
The Miami Seaquarium did not share details about the ocean sanctuary envisioned for Lolita’s release, but it hopes to relocate the orca in the next 18 to 24 months, pending approval from the appropriate authorities.
“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 peaceful future,” said Albor.
The release of Lolita is a landmark moment in the fight against animal captivity, and animal welfare organizations are hopeful that this will set a precedent for other captive animals around the world.