An orca who has been kept in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for 52 years may finally be on the path to freedom. Officials are considering releasing Lolita the orca into the wild, where she would be reunited with the mother she was taken from decades ago.
But is it safe to return whales to the ocean after being in captivity for so long? Keep reading for the details, and the story of Lolita.
And for the record, Lolita is actually the orca's show biz name, given to her at the aquarium. Her original name is Toki-tae, and the name given to her by the Lummi Nation of Washington State is Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.
Lolita the orca was captured back in 1970.
In 1970, a group of wild orcas was taken from a cove near Washington state’s Whidbey Island, near the Puget Sound, as reported by The Guardian. The news outlet cites Sandra Pollard’s book Puget Sound Whales for Sale: The Fight to End Orca Hunting, which includes bystander reports of the harrowing event.
In the book, one local stated that the abduction was “one of the most horrible things I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” adding that the scene was like watching a “prison camp, it was awful.” Other witnesses recalled hearing the whales cry out, as the men used explosives and other forceful measures to separate orca calves from their mothers.
In total, the men stole six baby whales that day, all of whom were sold to aquariums. Most of them died within a year, and today, only one is alive: Lolita.
Lolita has been living in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium since then, where she has been forced to live — and perform tricks that go against her species’ nature — in what has been described as “the smallest tank in North America” by In Defense of Animals.
A USDA inspection report of the Miami Seaquarium, which included a 2021 evaluation of Lolita (referred to as Toki and Tokitae in the report), exposed a number of health issues Lolita was dealing with, including abnormal blood work, inflammation, a lower mandible injury, agitation, an injury from chlorine as evidenced by white lines in her eyes, and more. Additionally, the report found that the aquarium was not providing Lolita with adequate health care.
In general, whales and other cetaceans forced to live in captivity are only able to swim in circles or back and forth in their tank — while in the wild, they typically swim hundreds of miles each day, according to the Humane Society of the United States. These unnatural conditions can cause whales to develop zoochosis, which can lead to a variety of concerning behaviors, from aggression to lethargy.
Lolita may finally be rescued soon.
Various animal rights groups have been working extra hard to convince The Dolphin Company, who recently became the owners of the Miami Seaquarium, to free Lolita. A number of protests have been staged outside of the aquarium as of late.
In March, the USDA gave The Dolphin Company a license based on the condition that Lolita would no longer be displayed to the public. Soon after, The Dolphin Company announced that veterinary experts would be assessing Lolita’s health, according to In Defense of Animals. The organization added that philanthropist Pritam Singh extended an offer of $1 million to help enable Lolita’s rescue.
According to PETA, Monday, Aug. 8 was the 52-year anniversary of the day Lolita and those five other baby orcas were stolen from their homes in the wild. As the date approached, Mexican singer Paulina Rubio wrote a letter to the CEO of The Dolphin Company, asking him to send Lolita to a coastal sanctuary.
Please don’t wait until it’s too late to give her the life she deserves,” Rubio wrote. “There is still time for Lolita to experience the ocean’s currents, swim greater distances and dive deeper, and live as an orca should.”
“PETA is demanding that the Miami Seaquarium stop Lolita’s suffering in this life of privation and send her to a sanctuary where she could feel the ocean currents and express natural behavior again, before it’s too late,” PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said in a statement shared with Green Matters.
Now, as activists wait to hear The Dolphin Company’s decision regarding freeing Lolita, experts are wondering if it would be safe — or even possible — to return Lolita to the Washington waters. Her mother, who is 93, is still swimming free in the Salish Sea, between the Pacific Northwestern state and British Columbia, and it would be incredible if experts find a way to safely reunite them.
Howard Garrett, a researcher from the Orca Network on Whidbey Island, has been trying to free Lolita since 1995, and he told The Guardian that he believes she could safely be transported to the Pacific.
The Whale Sanctuary Project has a proposed plan to return Lolita to the Pacific as well. The organization's Charles Vinick told Newsweek that if the aquarium does give the green light for Lolita’s release, the first priority will be her health; then, they “look forward to her return to her home waters in the Salish Sea."
This article has been updated to include a quote from Tracy Reiman.