SEATTLE — The Miami Seaquarium set a news conference Thursday to announce an initiative among the aquarium’s parent company, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts and a Florida nonprofit to “return beloved orca, Lolita,” to her home waters.
It’s unclear if federal agencies have signed off on the proposal, or if the announcement is a promise to finally release the last surviving Puget Sound orca in captivity.
Jim Irsay, owner of the NFL’s Colts, tweeted Tuesday that he’d be at “a big press conference” Thursday “for a HUGE ANNOUNCEMENT about the future of LOLITA the orca.”
Lolita, or Tokitae, was taken from her family, the L pod of southern residents, in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove and sold to the Miami Seaquarium more than five decades ago. That’s where she’s been holed up since, performing for crowds until recent years.
By the mid-1970s, some 270 orcas were estimated to have been captured in the Salish Sea, the transboundary waters between the U.S. and Canada. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50 were kept for captive display.
All are now dead but one, Tokitae.
A report filed by a federal veterinary medical officer in 2021 detailed multiple violations of animal care standards. Tokitae was given meager rations, fed rotten fish and forced to do high-energy jumps and tricks despite a jaw injury from fast swims, the report stated.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which monitors private aquariums, granted the former owner of the Miami Seaquarium a renewed exhibitor’s license under the condition it no longer displays Tokitae.
Since then, under an agreement between the Seaquarium and Florida nonprofit Friends of Toki, veterinarians have been working to treat Tokitae’s chronic illness, and staff have added water filtration and water chilling systems to her tank.
For years, Coast Salish people, politicians and nonprofits have been working to free Tokitae, also known by the Lummi name Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.
In 2018, Lummi Nation carvers and supporters embarked on a 7,000-mile journey to deliver an orca totem pole to Tokitae.
She still sings the songs of her family, Lummi Nation traditional chief Bill James said in a 2018 interview, and she wants to come home.
In 2019, two Lummi women invoked the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and announced their intent to sue the Seaquarium if they would not agree to safely bring the whale back home to her family in the Salish Sea.
In December, Eduardo Albor, the CEO of the Dolphin Company, the owner of the Miami Seaquarium, said the company is “100% committed” to her release. But with the proposal comes a long process to ensure her fitness for the journey home.
Federal regulatory agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the USDA would need to approve the move.
Jared Goodman, animal law general counsel for the nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said he think’s it’s possible.
“It should have happened decades ago,” Goodman said, “but we’re heartened that they’re still moving in this direction and very much look forward to hearing about the developments on Thursday.”
Speakers at Thursday’s news conference include Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami-Dade County; Albor; Pritam Singh, the investor behind the nonprofit Friends of Toki; and Irsay.
A spokesperson for the Seaquarium declined to comment.