Lolita the Orca May Swim Free After Decades at Miami Seaquarium

The killer whale Lolita, which has entertained generations of visitors with colossal leaps and sloppy belly flops that splashed crowds at the Miami Seaquarium, will be returning to her native waters after more than 50 years in captivity, the owner of the marine life aquarium and Miami-Dade County officials said.

The plan to release the orca — also known as Tokitae — is the result of a “binding agreement” among The Dolphin Company, which operates the Seaquarium, Miami-Dade County and animal rights advocates, the company said. The move comes after an outcry from those who complained for years that an animal from the ocean should not be kept in a small tank.

“The most important thing is Tokitae’s long term well-being and together guided by the experts will continue to do what is best for her,” County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

Ms. Levine Cava said that her administration, which oversaw the transfer of the Seaquarium’s ownership to The Dolphin Company last year, sees the whale’s health as the priority.

Eduardo Albor, chief executive of The Dolphin Company, said, “this is a very special day” and added, “This is beyond Lolita. She is going to become a symbol.”

The Rights of Animals

At the news conference, Jim Irsay, a philanthropist and owner of the National Football League team the Indianapolis Colts, said it was all about helping the orca: “I know Lolita wants to get to free waters.”

Mr. Irsay said he would help to pay for Lolita’s relocation, the cost of which could rise to eight figures and could require the use of a 747 plane or a C-17 military plane.

He said the relocation also could involve building a sanctuary with netting in the Pacific Ocean off the northwest coast of the United States, and transporting Lolita and two dolphins that keep her company as well as hiring trainers to help the whale adapt to the open waters.

Mr. Irsay added that the plan is “not a short-range commitment. It’s a long-range commitment.”

Lolita has to be taught “how to catch fish again,” Mr. Irsay said. “She doesn’t know how to do that anymore. She’s been in captivity too long.”

It wasn’t immediately clear on Thursday whether federal approval would be required to transfer Lolita to the ocean, and no further details on the logistics of such a move were discussed. The Dolphin Company said that the relocation could take place in the next 18 to 24 months.

Lolita has been at the Miami Seaquarium on Virginia Key since 1970, after she was separated from her pod and captured in the Pacific Northwest.

Since her arrival, Lolita has become a tourist attraction, creating a signature event at the marine park that gave visitors what could be their only chance to be so close to an impressive ocean creature and to feel the power of its leaps — which sent water raining down on people on the bleachers by Lolita’s tank.

But her show also became controversial among residents and animal rights advocates beyond the Miami area, who have campaigned for decades for her release to the wild. “Free Lolita” became a slogan in South Florida and beyond.

The animal rights advocacy organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals welcomed the news of Lolita’s possible release on Thursday.

“PETA and kind people everywhere have been demanding her freedom from the #MiamiSeaquarium for years!” the organization said on Twitter.

The Seaquarium said the whale, which had stopped performing last year as her health declined, is 57, about 20 feet long and 7,000 pounds. She remains in her 80-foot-long and 35-foot-wide tank but is no longer being exhibited.

Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family, and they swim throughout the world’s oceans, mainly eating Chinook salmon.

Killer whales are known to stay with their birth families for their whole lives. The families are led by matriarchs who can live 80 to 90 years.

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