Protesters gather in front of Seaquarium in continued quest to free whale

VIRGINIA KEY, Fla. – A protest is underway at Miami Seaquarium in the latest call to free Lolita, the 20-foot-long, 7,000-pound orca who has lived at the Miami tourist attraction for 50 years.

Protesters, including someone dressed as Santa Claus, made their way to Virginia Key on Christmas Eve day, in what has become an ongoing fight for what they say should be the orca’s release.

Activists say the tank in which the whale lives is not fit for her size.

“She needs us to speak for her,” said Patty Leon, a protester with the group the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “And that’s why we’re here today. It’s the holidays. We think about family and friends, but we also need to think about the animals who are suffering and have some compassion for them.”

Leon disagrees with the Seaquarium’s position that Lolita is well taken care of and that she would not survive a trip back to the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s absolutely false. This is no life for Lolita,” Leon said.

Many have been fighting to bring the whale that the Lummi Nation knows as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home to her birth waters of the Salish Sea, where her family, L pod of the Southern Resident orcas, still swim free.

The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest said that under their inherent rights, the whale belongs to them.

“She’s a relative. We have a right to call her home,” said Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris of the Lummi Nation.

The Lummi Nation has vowed to bring her home as their sacred obligation and they believe after 50 years, it’s time for her to retire.

The Lummis have filed an intent to sue the Miami Seaquarium. They’re hoping it doesn’t come to that.

Activists have been in a decades-long fight to free Lolita for more than 25 years. In October 2018, a federal appeals court rejected a petition to reopen a lawsuit over the Seaquarium’s treatment of the killer whale.

The Miami Herald reported in 2018 that “the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit determined that while Lolita’s case was ‘unique’ due to her age and the continuing medical care present at the aquarium, there was ‘no threat of serious harm’ sufficient to trigger a violation of the federal animal welfare law. The court also noted that there is ‘no realistic means for returning to the wild without being harmed.’ "

The Lummis said they have a plan in place with the Orca Network, the Whale Sanctuary Project, and with veterinarians and marine biologists on a way to safely bring her back to the Salish Sea.

About the Authors:

Christian De La Rosa joined Local 10 News in April 2017 after spending time as a reporter and anchor in Atlanta, San Diego, Orlando and Panama City Beach.

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true-crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local