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After 53 years, Lolita might leave Miami Seaquarium

Lolita has been at the Miami Seaquarium for 53 years. (Until Lolita is Home Facebook)

The 57-year-old orca known as Lolita has spent 53 years in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium under questionable conditions and repeated calls for her release by the public, activists and Native communities. There now appears to be a potential path for the 6,300-pound killer whale (also called Tokitae, Toki and Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Lummi Nation) to be relocated to an ocean sanctuary in her native Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest for the remainder of her life. She was captured in Puget Sound and transported to Miami when she was approximately four-years-old.

Seaquarium officials first announced their intentions March 30 in a news release by new owner The Dolphin Company. The release said it had entered into a “formal and binding agreement” with the nonprofit Friends of Toki, formally Friends of Lolita, and other entities to move her to her home waters.

Friends of Toki was cofounded by Pritam Singh, an environmentalist and real estate developer in Key West. The organization consists of marine mammal scientists, Lummi Nation elder Raynell Morris, Charles Vinick of the Whale Sanctuary Project and others. Philanthropist Jim Irsay, the owner and CEO of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, is also helping to fund Lolita’s relocation.

“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 in the March 30 release.

Specifics are thin, but officials said the hope was that the relocation would be possible in the next 18-to-24 months, although any timeline would depend on Lolita’s health. Recent independent health and welfare assessments have said her energy, appetite and engagement were “becoming reasonably stable.”

The transportation method is expected to be similar to the one used to move her to Miami in 1970. Officials said she is being trained to swim into a custom–made stretcher that would be lifted by crane into a container filled with ice water. The container would be transported on a plane to Bellingham, Washington, where it would then be loaded onto a barge to transport her to a sea pen at a private location where Lolita would receive regular medical care, security and feedings.

“Returning Lolita to her home waters does not mean releasing her into the open ocean,” an updated May 1 news release from the Seaquarium, said. “She is expected to remain under human care in a protected habitat  for the rest of her life. Lolita will continue to receive enrichment, high-quality nutrition, medical care and love, all according to the approved plans by federal authorities.”

The development is welcome news by those who have long advocated for Lolita’s release, including the nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“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. “[Her release will] 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.”

Native, public pressure

Lolita is one of the few remaining orcas in captivity. The Seaquarium discontinued its shows that featured her in 2022, the year it was acquired by The Dolphin Company. PETA, which is against the use of animals for entertainment, said awareness and activism has grown around orcas in captivity at marine parks.

The public’s appetite for such entertainment – made most famous at SeaWorld locations in the U.S. – has waned in recent years. Pressure to free orcas in captivity was ramped up significantly in the wake of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which told the story of the orca Tilikum, who performed at SeaWorld Orlando. The documentary argued that keeping orcas in captivity is damaging and inhumane.

Tilikum, who died in 2017, was involved in the deaths of two trainers and a trespasser at SeaWorld Orlando.

SeaWorld decided in 2016 to end its orca breeding programs and phase out live shows. It is thought that the decision was made at least in part because of the fallout from the documentary and continued public pressure from animal rights groups and activists within Native tribes.

Members of the Lummi Nation, located just west of Bellingham, consider Lolita to be a family member. They have advocated for her release for decades, calling it a “sacred obligation.” The Lummi, with support from the Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukee Tribe, have held ceremonies and protests on several totem pole journeys.

Lummi artist Jewell James created and donated a 16-foot totem pole that depicts Lolita. Over the years, the totem pole has traveled from Bellingham to Miami – making several stops along the way – including at the Big Cypress and Hollywood reservations.

The Seaquarium, located at 4400 Rickenbacker Causeway on Virginia Key east of downtown Miami, first opened in 1955. It features a variety of sea creatures, including dolphins, sea lions, manatees, reef fish and sharks. It was the location for the filming of 88 episodes of the “Flipper” TV series.

More information on Lolita’s impending release can be found at

Members of the Lummi Nation have traveled from Washington state to Miami several times with a totem pole representing Lolita in order to pressure the Seaquarium to release her. (File photo)
Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at