More than 50 years after being captured in the Pacific Ocean and held for decades at the Miami Seaquarium, a plan to return Lolita the Orca to “home waters” to live out the rest of her days was announced Thursday.
Lolita’s hopeful fate was announced at a news conference Thursday held by the Miami Seaquarium, along with Florida non-profit Friends of Lolita and philanthropist and owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts Jim Irsay.
The Miami Seaquarium did not immediately respond to an overnight request for comment from NBC News.
Lolita, a southern resident orca also known as Tokitae, was pulled from the waters of Washington state in 1970 when she was around four years old, according to NBC Miami. The orca, now believed to be around 57, is the oldest to be held in captivity.
Lolita had fallen ill in recent years, with the company then taking over the Miami Seaquarium, MS Leisure, announcing last year that the roughly 7,000-pound orca would no longer be put on display in the whale stadium.
At the time, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she was “hopeful that this transfer of ownership will usher in an era of accountability.”
In June, an independent assessment found that Lolita’s condition had improved.
Southern resident orcas, which spend several months of the summer and autumn each year in Washington State’s Puget Sound, were added to the endangered species list in 2005, according to NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. agency responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources and their habitat.
The Southern Resident population has “fluctuated considerably” since the 1970s, with pods “reduced during 1965-75 because of captures for marine parks,” it says on its website.
The population consisted of 71 whales in 1974, the first year that individuals were counted and then peaked at 97 animals in 1996, before declining again to 79 in 2001, it says, noting as of around August 2022, the population numbered in the 70s.
Animal rights activists have for years advocated for Lolita to be moved back to her home pod in Puget Sound, with groups like PETA taking the Seaquarium to court over the orca’s captivity.
“If Lolita is finally returned to her home waters, there will be cheers from around the world, including from PETA, which has pursued several lawsuits on Lolita’s behalf and battered the Seaquarium with protests demanding her freedom for years,” PETA Foundation Vice President and General Counsel for Animal Law Jared Goodman said in a statement Tuesday.
“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,” Goodman said.