Florida aquarium plans to return Lolita the orca to native waters after 52 years

MIAMI — Officials in on Thursday announced that plans have been launched to return Lolita the orca whale back to her native waters more than 50 years after she was taken from the Puget Sound in Washington.

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Officials with the company that operates the Miami Seaquarium — Lolita’s home for the last several decades — philanthropist and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and the non-profit Friends of Lolita announced plans to relocate the orca back to the Pacific Northwest in the next 18 to 24 months.

“Finding a better future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium,” Eduardo Albor, CEO of The Dolphin Company, said Thursday in a statement. The company began operating the aquarium last year.

“With the help of Jim Irsay and (Friends of Lolita co-founder) Pritam Singh, we are bringing that dream, the dream of returning Lolita to her home waters, closer than ever.”

Howard Garrett, a co-founder of the Orca Network, told KIRO-TV that he was beyond thrilled to learn of Lolita’s upcoming release. He has spent years working to free the orca, who is also known as Tokitae or Toki.

Garrett said Lolita was taken from Penn Cove off Whidbey Island in 1970 and shipped “almost immediately” to Miami. She was part of the L pod of the Salish Sea’s Southern Resident orcas and is now the oldest killer whale living in captivity, according to KIRO.

Officials with the Lummi Nation praised Thursday’s decision, telling KIRO that Lolita — who they called “Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut” — “represents our resilience and strength and our need for healing.”

She reminds us of the necessity to keep pushing for salmon recovery, habitat restoration, and bringing our children home,” they said.

The 57-year-old whale was a star attraction at the Miami Seaquarium up until last year. For decades, activists have been working to secure her release.

Over the years, the orca has had several health scares, raising concerns over her ability to survive in the wild, the Miami Herald reported.

“We believe it is entirely feasible and likely that we can move her to an ocean-based habitat in the Pacific Northwest,” Pritam Singh said Thursday, according to the newspaper.

In a statement, officials with The Dolphin Company emphasized, “Lolita will receive the highest quality care as the team works to make relocation possible in the next 18 to 24 months.”

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