After decades of campaigning from environmental activists and the Coast Salish Lummi Nation, Lolita the orca, the second-oldest orca in captivity, will be returned to her home waters in Puget Sound.
The Miami Seaquarium, where Lolita has lived for 53 years, announced the planned relocation at a Thursday press conference along with parent The Dolphin Company, Florida non-profit Friends of Lolita and philanthropist Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and main donor for the relocation.
Miami-Dade Mayor Levine Cava was also in attendance and called the agreement “historic” and a great day for the city, the Miami Herald reported.
The relocation is expected to take six to nine months and will cost between US$15 to $20 million. Before moving the orca across the country, the team will need to secure approval from federal agencies, build a netted pen for her in Puget Sound waters, stock it with dolphins to keep the orca company and hire trainers to help Lolita acclimatize to the wild.
“We have to teach her how to catch fish again. She doesn’t know how to do that anymore, she’s been in captivity too long,” said Eduardo Albor, CEO of the Dolphin Company.
Big news! We are thrilled about Lolita returning to her home waters, we are proud of this moment and proud of @MiamiSeaquarium. Stay tuned for updates on this historic moment!
— The Dolphin Company (@TheDolphinCo_) March 30, 2023
The Miami Seaquarium has resisted calls to release Lolita for many years. This about-face comes after the aquarium changed owners and announced it would no longer put the 5,000-pound, 57-year-old orca on public display last year.
Lolita, also known as Tokitae, was captured in a massive orca round-up off the coast of Washington state in 1970 when she was just four years old. During this time, hunters captured dozens of orcas, many of whom died shortly after, in the waters of the Pacific Northwest to sell to theme parks. The practice contributed to the decline of the southern-resident orca population, of which Lolita is a member.
There are only about 73 southern-resident orcas remaining, according to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, but Lolita still has family members in Salish Sea waters, according to the Lummi Nation, a coastal, self-governing nation west of Bellingham in Washington.
For years, the Lummi Nation has campaigned to return Lolita to her home waters. In 2018, the 50th anniversary of Lolita’s capture from Puget Sound, the Nation travelled to Miami, bringing with them a totem pole carved for the orca.
“In our language, qwe lhol mechen translates to ‘our relative under the water,’” said Jay Julius, a member of the Lummi Nation, in an interview with the Seattle Times. “She is a member of our family, and it is our sacred obligation to bring her home to the Salish Sea.”
Julius, former chair of the Lummi Indian Business Council, compared Lolita’s story to the personal histories of many Indigenous families across North America, whose children were taken from their relatives and placed in abusive residential schools.
“She was forced out of her home waters to live in isolation far away from her family. Her story is the Lummi story and the story of so many Native peoples across the country,” Julius said.
At the time of the Lummi Nation’s 2018 trip, the Miami Seaquarium posted a video to their Facebook page in which Robert Rose, a curator emeritus, said the Lummi people “should be ashamed of themselves, they don’t care about Lolita, they don’t care about her best interests, they don’t really care whether she lives or dies. To them, she is nothing more than a vehicle by which they promote their name, their political agenda, to obtain money and to gain media attention. Shame on them.”
There is evidence that orcas that have been captive for many years can survive in the wild.
In 1998, Keiko the orca, who inspired the movie Free Willy, was moved to a sea pen in Iceland by the U.S. Air Force. The orca later swam to Norway and lived free in the ocean for five years before dying of pneumonia.
“There is debate about Keiko, and how well he adapted, but I point to his freedom as a victory and proof that he did learn to survive on his own,” said Jared Goodman, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation vice president and counsel for animal law, in an interview with the Miami Herald.
“Lolita is the second oldest orca in captivity to Corky at SeaWorld San Diego, but she could have some good years ahead of her. There’s speculation that her mother is still alive. She’s an apex predator. She was never meant to live in a tank.”
The news of Lolita’s relocation comes less than a month after Kiska, the last orca in captivity in Canada, died of a bacterial infection. The orca was believed to be about 47 years old and had lived at Marineland in Ontario ever since being captured in Icelandic waters in 1979.
Kiska gave birth to five calves at Marineland, all of whom died, earning her the moniker of “world’s loneliest orca.”
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