Lolita the Killer Whale May Return to Mother After Decades in Captivity

Lolita the captive killer whale could finally return home to her mom after living in captivity for 52 years.

Lolita, also known as Tokitae, is one of the most famous captive orcas in the world. The 56-year-old orca lives at Miami Seaquarium, in the smallest captive orca tank in North America, where she has been since 1970.

She is the last surviving killer whale out of 45 that were originally captured and delivered for display in aquariums between 1965 and 1973. These were some of the first orcas ever kept in captivity.

Animal welfare groups have been campaigning for Lolita's release for years. And now, this looks like more of a possibility.

Lolita was originally captured from a pod of southern resident whales living off British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. And her mother, is still believed to roam the waters—experts believe it is a 93-year-old whale called L25 or "Ocean Sun," however there is no evidence to corroborate this.

Lolita killer whale
A picture shows protesters advocating for the release of Lolita in 2015. Animal rights campaigners have been arguing for her release for years. Michele Sandberg/Getty

According to The Guardian, Miami Seaquarium was sold to a new owner more open to discussing plans for her release in 2021. A report last year from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was also the catalyst for a renewed urgency around Lolita's release.

After an inspection of the Miami Seaquarium, the report cited multiple concerns about Lolita's environment. It said that the Seaquarium's management had been ignoring the recommendations of its in house veterinarian, who at the time was Magdalena Rodriguez. Rodriguez left the post shortly afterwards.

A Foundation called Friends of Lolita has also begun working with Lolita's owners, to discuss her eventual release, The Guardian reported.

The Whale Sanctuary Project has even drafted an operational plan for her return to the ocean.

However, plans for her release raise some ethical questions that must be worked out before everything is set in motion.

At 56 years old, Lolita is already an enigma. Captive killer whales have a much shorter life expectancy than those living in the wild. There are concerns whether Lolita would even survive the journey from her tank to the ocean, let alone whether she could deal with the stress of the new environment once she got there.

Charles Vinick, executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, which has been campaigning for better conditions for the whale, told The Guardian: "How do you evaluate those risks with an endangered species? Do you take any risks? And do you take risks for her life? Those are the issues we are dealing with I think for the first time ever in her life."

Southern resident killer whales are an endangered species, with only 75 thought to be living in the wild as of July 2022. During her time at Miami Seaquarium, Lolita has fought off infections that some fear could harm the wider population if she were to return to the wild.

Vinick told Newsweek: "The priority today is on Toki's health and welfare, making sure that she receives the best medical care possible, that her current physical environment is as optimal for her as possible, and that she has a stimulating enrichment program. We remain focused first and foremost on her health and, as her health stabilizes, we look forward to her return to her home waters in the Salish Sea."

Miami Seaquarium told Newsweek that it doesn't have an updated statement right now, but it's "working with Friends of Lolita and independent marine mammal experts to provide the best possible care" for the orca.

Captive orca
A file photo of a captive orca in the water. Lolita has been in captivity for over five decades. friedgreenbeans/Getty

Update 8/16/21 at 3:08 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include comments from Charles Vinick and the Miami Seaquarium.