Lolita the orca has been in captivity for 52 years. Now she may be returning to the ocean

Trainer Marcia Hinton pets Lolita, a captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, March 9, 1995
Trainer Marcia Hinton pets Lolita, a captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, March 9, 1995 Copyright AP
By Doloresz Katanich with AP
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This orca was taken from her family more than half a century ago. She could soon be reunited with them.

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Ageing orca Lolita is set to be returned to the Pacific Ocean after more than 50 years of captivity - and to potentially reunite with her mother.

The 57-year-old killer whale has amassed huge numbers of visitors since she began performing at The Miami Seaquarium in 1970.

Taken from her mother and her seven siblings at age four, Lolita arrived at the Miami Seaquarium for a fee of just €5,500.

While many other animals died in the facility, Lolita performed tirelessly until falling ill last year - all while living in the world's smallest orca tank.

Now, plans are in place to return her to the ocean, where her mother is believed to still live.

“She was four when she was taken, so she was learning to hunt. She knows her family song,” said Raynell Morris, an elder of the Lummi Indian Tribe in Washington who also serves on the board of Friends of Toki, a local nonprofit dedicated to securing the whale's freedom.

“She'll remember, but it will take time.”

PETA
Lolita the killer whale in her tank in the Miami SequariumPETA

Who has campaigned to have Lolita released?

On Thursday, an unlikely coalition involving the theme park's owner, animal rights group Friends of Toki, and an NFL owner-philanthropist announced plans to free the whale

“I'm excited to be a part of Lolita's journey to freedom,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “I know Lolita wants to get to free waters.”

The orca believed to be her mother, called Ocean Sun, continues to swim free with other members of their clan - known as L pod - and is estimated to be more than 90 years old. That has given advocates of her release optimism that Tokitae could still maybe have a long life in the wild.

The release will be subject to government regulatory approvals.

For years, environmental groups and celebrities have pressured the aquarium to free Lolita.

Over the decades, celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Lindsay Lohan and Harrison Ford have campaigned to see the animal released. But it was an inspection by the United States Department of Agriculture that finally put an end to her suffering.

"The report showed that animals were suffering and dying in the Seaquarium’s tanks because of the poor care they've received," says PETA's Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Jared Goodman.

"So the tank was closed around that time and apparently will never open again."

Live shows with Lolita were ended last year. 

How will Lolita's release be managed

The time frame for moving the animal could be 18 to 24 months away, the group said, and the cost could reach $20 million (€18.4m).

The plan is to transport Lolita by plane to an ocean sanctuary in the waters between Washington and Canada, where she will initially swim inside a large net while trainers and veterinarians teach her how to catch fish.

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She will also have to build up her muscles, as orcas typically swim about 100 miles (160 kilometers) per day.

The orca would be under 24-hour care until she acclimates to her new surroundings.

Caretakers at the Seaquarium are already preparing her for the journey, officials said.

The move comes after the park was acquired by The Dolphin Company, which took ownership of the Seaquarium in 2021. It operates some 27 other parks and habitats in Mexico, Argentina, the Caribbean and Italy.

Lolita's prison - the world's smallest orca tank

PETA
Children are also taking part of the campaigns PETA lauched to have Lolita released.PETA

At 24 metres long and ten metres wide, Lolita's tank is just four times her size.

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She would need to circle it 600 times to travel the same distance wild whales cover in a single day.

In the wild, whales like Lolita live as long as humans; in a tank, that life expectancy is cut in half.

In her native Pacific Northwest waters, whales like Lolita can live as long as humans; in a tank, that life expectancy is cut in half.

For now, the focus remains on freeing the orca from captivity and returning her to the wild - in the safest way possible.

"The initial focus should be on her health and welfare," says Executive Director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, Charles Vinick.

"Everyone should be focused on ensuring that we provide her with the highest quality of life she can have for the rest of her life."

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Watch the video above from March 2022 to learn more about Lolita's long road to freedom. Since then, new plans have been made to release her into the wild.

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