Captive orca Lolita’s health ‘bouncing back,’ giving hope she could be moved

MIAMI – Patrick Pearson, general manager of the Miami Seaquarium -- the home of Lolita, a 56-year-old orca -- says her health continues to improve.

Lolita, also known as Tokitae or Toki, is still recovering from a health crisis and infection that caused her to stop eating earlier this month, but Pearson says she’s bouncing back.

“She’s doing great,” said Pearson. “She was very playful yesterday; her diet is back to almost normal levels again.”

What’s not clear is how many pounds of fish she’s actually eating now.

This new information comes as concern grows by animal rights activists who were outraged by a recent USDA inspection report that found that the diets of nine dolphins at the park were cut by 60 percent to get the dolphins to perform better during guest interactions.

“She can’t stay at the Miami Seaquarium, quite frankly, for another day, but certainly not for another two or three years. She needs a new home,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal specialist at the Animal Welfare Institute.

The recent USDA report does not mention Toki. The orca was retired from performing and from even being exhibited as per the new licensing deal between the USDA and the Seaquarium’s new owners, the Dolphin Company.

In turn, the USDA gave up its oversight over her care.

“The USDA has effectively abandoned Lolita after last year’s report with the various citations that the facility received for the poor conditions in which all of these animals were being held,” said PETA general counsel member Jared Goodman.

According to the June 2021 inspection report of the Seaquarium, then owned by Palace Entertainment, USDA inspectors deemed Toki’s whale stadium a safety hazard and said the pool was in serious disrepair with paint and pieces of concrete chipping and peeling into the habitat.

Local 10 News recently asked Pearson if any improvements had been made.

“Our veterinarians have come and weighed in on that issue and we do believe that that was a cause and precursor to some of her illnesses,” he said. “When some work was done on the stadium, it caused her to be agitated and then eventually ill.”

The non-profit Friends of Lolita is now working with the Dolphin Company to provide Toki with the care and attention she needs.

FOL directors say improvements have been made to her tank’s water quality.

“All of the filters have been changed, a new chiller is being put in there. A lot of attention is being paid, a lot of effort and money is being spent, and has been spent, on the water quality,” said Pritam Singh, the co-founder of Friends of Lolita.

Now, the Seaquarium says a pending announcement regarding Toki’s future will happen soon.

“We’re working on an announcement,” said Pearson. “I can tell you that much with the Friends of Lolita and that should be coming soon.”

When asked by Local 10′s Louis Aguirre if the announcement was a plan to send her to a seaside sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest, Peterson said, “I can’t comment on that, Louis, at this point.”

According to Friends of Lolita, the Dolphin Company is on board with that plan.

“They have said bluntly that they believe that Toki should never have been there,” said Singh. “They also have said to us that Toki, all things being equal, should go back to the Salish Sea -- they support that.”

Because of the Endangered Species Act and oversight from regulatory agencies, Rose cautions it would take years to approve and set up a sea pen for Toki in the Pacific Northwest.

The more likely scenario is that Toki will be moved to a bigger tank, perhaps in the northeast by the ocean, which would give her more room, time to re-acclimate to colder weather and cooler water and give her time to regain her strength.

About the Authors:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.

Ryan Mackey is our newest digital journalist at WPLG. He is New York born and South Florida raised.