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Florida aquarium returning Lolita the orca to the Salish Sea after 53 years in tank

Lolita, 57, is part of the endangered southern resident killer whales pod
Trainer Marcia Hinton pets Lolita, a captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, March 9, 1995. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Miami Herald-Nuri Vallbona

An orca known as Lolita could be heading back to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest, ending more than 50 years of tank captivity, after a deal was struck between the Miami Seaquarium and advocates pushing for her release.

The aquarium and the group Friends of Lolita said in a statement Thursday the orca could be relocated to an open ocean sanctuary in her home waters in the next 18 to 24 months, although project donor Jim Irsay said at a news conference in Miami that it could be six to nine months.

Lolita is estimated to be 57 years old and has been in captivity in the Florida park since 1970, after being captured in the waters of Puget Sound in Washington state.

She was part of a pod of the endangered southern resident killer whales that roam waters off British Columbia and the U.S. northwest.

Eduardo Albor, CEO of The Dolphin Company, said in the statement that finding a better future for Lolita was one of the reasons his company recently bought the aquarium.

Pritam Singh, co-founder of Friends of Lolita, said it’s a “sacred privilege” to bring Lolita home under the terms of the binding agreement.

Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts NFL team, is partnering with Albor and Friends of Lolita to move the orca from her marine park tank, which measures 24 metres by 11 metres and is six metres deep. Overall the mission will cost US$15 million to US$20 million, they said.

“I’m excited to be a part of Lolita’s journey to freedom,” Irsay said. “I know Lolita wants to get to free waters.”

The plan is to transport Lolita by plane to Pacific waters off Washington state, where she will initially swim inside a large net while trainers and veterinarians teach her how to catch fish, Irsay said.

The orca will be under 24-hour care until she acclimates to her new surroundings.

Lolita’s caretakers at the Seaquarium are already preparing her for the journey, officials said.

The Dolphin Company took ownership of the park in 2021 and last year announced it would no longer stage shows with Lolita, under an agreement with federal regulators. The company operates some 27 other parks and habitats in Mexico, Argentina, the Caribbean and Italy.

Animal rights activists including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have long fought for Lolita to spend her final years back home in a controlled setting.

Activists often protest along the road that runs by the Seaquarium, which they’ve referred to as an “abusement park.” PETA says it doesn’t want Lolita to suffer the same fate as her partner Hugo, who died in 1980 from a brain aneurysm after ramming his head repeatedly into the tank’s walls.

Albor said Thursday that as his company was in the process of acquiring the Seaquarium, he and his daughter visited as tourists. He said his daughter became upset while watching Lolita’s show, even as many others in the crowd were squealing in delight.

He said his daughter told him “this place is too small for Lolita” and made him promise to help the orca if his company bought the park.

“That touched me,” Albor said.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava called the agreement historic, saying, “many have hoped and prayed for this result for many, many years.”

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