Miami Seaquarium announces plan to return orca Lolita to ‘home waters’

MIAMI – An executive with the Miami Seaquarium was joined by county officials and philanthropists Thursday morning to announce a plan to return beloved orca Lolita to her “home waters.”

The CEO of The Dolphin Company, which operates the Miami Seaquarium, Eduardo Albor, spoke Thursday morning alongside Indianapolis Colts owner and philanthropist Jim Irsay, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Pritam Singh, who leads Friends of Lolita.

Lolita — also known as Tokitae, or Toki — has been in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium, located on Virginia Key, since 1970, after she was captured from her pod in the Pacific Northwest.

The 56-year-old orca stopped performing in 2022, but still remains in her 80-foot-long and 35-foot-wide tank.

Back in December, Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre broke the news that Albor said he was committed to the effort to free Lolita.

According to a news release Thursday, The Dolphin Company “has entered into a formal and binding agreement with Friends of Lolita” to “bring to life the dream of returning Lolita to an ocean sanctuary.”

The exact details of the agreement weren’t specified in the news release.

“I know Lolita wants to get to free waters,” Irsay said at Thursday’s press event.

Advocates said a number of sites for a natural sea pen to house Lolita have been identified, including one in the Salish Sea, in waters her family still swims through. Her 95-year-old mother is believed to still be alive.

“(There’s) the opportunity for her acoustically connect with her family, without a doubt,” Charles Vinick, the executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, said. “So, acoustically, yes, and potentially physically over time.”

Experts on the matter tell Local 10 News the orca’s return to its native waters would be a complex endeavor and require a series of processes to get Toki re-acclimated to life outside the Seaquarium.

Federal regulatory agencies like NOAA and the USDA would also have to approve.

Officials said it could take a few months to two years to move Lolita back to the Pacific Northwest. Considering her ongoing health issues, there were questions about whether she would live long enough to be able to go home.

But, according to her caregivers, she’s rebounded to the point where she’s strong enough to make the 3,000-mile journey to Washington state.

“The vets have specifically given us written assurances that, even today, she’s healthy enough,” Singh said.

Advocates pledged to expedite the process.

“We’re working with people in Washington, D.C. to get past the red tape as fast as we can,” Irsay said Thursday.

Raynell Morris, a member of the Lummi Nation, the indigenous people of the Salish Sea who consider Toki a relative, says she’s optimistic.

The tribe has been fighting for the move to finally happen.

“The web of life was broken when they took her,” Morris said. “When we bring her home and reunite her with her mother, her family, her relatives, we’ll repair that web of life.”

Watch the full press event:

About the Authors:

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

Chris Gothner joined the Local 10 News team in 2022 as a Digital Journalist.