VIRGINIA KEY, Fla. – She gracefully leaped into the air and came down with a huge splash, just as she had done countless times before when she performed at the Miami Seaquarium before cheering crowds over the past five decades.
On Monday, Tokitae was as majestic and as powerful as ever. Despite two health scares last year, the 57-year-old orca known to fans as “Lolita,” is stable again.
Jessica Comolli, the director of the Miami Seaquarium’s animal health department and one of a team of six veterinarians tending to Tokitae, said “Toki” is doing great.
“She has great energy; her blood work is stable,” Comolli said. “She’s looking really good right now.”
“Toki” retired from performing as “Lolita” at the Whale Stadium in March of last year as a condition of the park’s new exhibitor’s license with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She’s not been publically displayed since.
Local 10 News was invited to see “Toki” and witness the present-day conditions at the Whale Stadium after photographs went viral on social media showing the current state of disrepair at her habitat. The paint is peeling. There is visible spalling and there is shoring underneath the structure. Miami-Dade County inspectors deemed the stadium unsafe in August 2021 and it’s been closed to the public ever since.
“We need to put her somewhere to repair this,” said Eduardo Albor, the chief executive officer of the Dolphin Company, the Seaquarium’s new owner who inherited the Whale stadium in its dilapidated conditions when it took over operations from previous owners, Palace Entertainment/Parques Reunidos in March of 2022.
“It concerns us definitely and it requires very deep maintenance,” Albor said. “The only way to do it is to empty the tank. We cannot do it while she’s in here.”
Albor said he is now open to the possibility of releasing “Toki” to an enclosed, fully staffed, natural sea pen in the Pacific Northwest, in the same waters where she was captured as a 4-year-old calf in 1970, and where her family the l-pod still swims through.
First, they need to get her ready, and improving her health and present quality of life is paramount. Albor said more than half a million dollars has been invested to improve her water quality.
Since the spring of 2022, the Seaquarium has been working with the nonprofit, “Friends of Toki” to provide optimal care and together figure out what her best future would be. Getting her water right was critical.
Over the past few months, new upgrades have been installed to better filter the pool and regulate her water temperature. New chillers can now get the temp down to mimic the waters of the Pacific Northwest, said Michael Partica who trains “Toki.”
“Right now it’s at 56 to 58 but we can get it down to 50,” Partica said. “We have redundancy in the chiller so if one goes down we have backups and then we have the ozone generator which will sterilize the water from bacteria, algae parasites that type of thing.”
Partica said the pool is scrubbed and vacuumed four times a week and as for the health scares that saw “Toki” gravely ill both in February and October of 2020-21, “Toki” has defied all odds and has bounced back strong.
“Toki is doing great,” Partica said. “We’re increasing our interactive time; we’re trying to find ways to entertain her throughout the day. The plan is to continue the exercise program and then just start getting ready for the move.”
Before that move happens, she has to be trained to voluntarily swim onto a stretcher and that training has yet to begin.
“We will be starting that very shortly,” Partica said.
Friends of Toki said the move could take months if not a couple of years to finalize, but if for whatever reason they need to get her out sooner, she’s ready.
“If the move will happen like this or next week, she could do it right now,” Albor said. “She’s in as good condition needed for transportation but we need to keep her stable.”.
But the sea pen plan is not yet a done deal. Both federal and state regulatory agencies still need to approve it and that will take months — maybe even years.
Friends of Toki say the application process has already begun but it’s not the only option on the table. We will explore what else is being discussed during a special report that will be airing on Tuesday on Local 10 News.