Update published 1:50 p.m. 3/30/2023: On March 30, the Miami Seaquarium announced that it had entered into a contract with the nonprofit group Friends of Lolita, AKA Friends of Toki, to transport Lolita the orca to an ocean sanctuary.
Owing partly to a contribution from Colts owner Jim Irsay, the group says it hopes to relocate Lolita within the next 18 to 24 months.
The original story follows below.
Is it actually happening? Is Lolita the orca finally going home to the Pacific Northwest after more than 50 years in captivity at Miami Seaquarium?
In an announcement of a "historic initiative" to "return our beloved Lolita from Miami Seaquarium to her home water," the marine park and nonprofit Friends of Toki claim a move is in the works, hinting at a partnership with Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.
Irsay might be the angel investor to swoop in and bankroll the multimillion-dollar project, which would involve transporting Lolita, AKA Tokitae or Toki, to a sanctuary in her native waters in the Salish Sea.
The Colts owner and CEO is listed as a special guest at a March 30 press conference at the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami, during which the plan's details are expected to be announced. Irsay teased his involvement with the project in January, tweeting: "We're gonna try to save Lolita the Whale… but I'm gonna need help and ocean blessings. Lots of red tape and hurdles. More info to come on this rescue effort. No guarantees."
The initiative comes on the heels of the March 9 death of 47-year-old Kiska, Canada's last captive orca, whose fatal bacterial infection grabbed global headlines and served as a reminder of how fragile older, captive orcas' health can be.
For years there had been plans to create a seaside sanctuary where Lolita could live out the rest of her life — but amid staunch opposition to such a move from the Seaquarium's previous owners, those plans were, well, just plans.
Much has changed, however, in the past year and a half.
Lolita, who is in her mid-to-late 50s and nearing the end of typical orca life expectancy, was removed from public exhibition in March 2022 while ill with an infection that nearly killed her. She was no longer the star of the Miami Seaquarium, no longer generating revenue for the park, yet still racking up hefty medical bills.
In December 2022, Miami Seaquarium's new owner, Eduardo Albor, revealed that he'd be open to moving the famed orca from her tank to the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington state. Albor's proclamation about being "100 percent" committed to efforts to release Lolita set the animal-rights world abuzz, but, at the time, it was a cross-country trip without a set destination.
Meanwhile, Irsay's office contacted New Times after reading our story about the Seaquarium's change of heart and said the Colts' owner was interested in helping to free the orca.
A partnership apparently has since materialized between Irsay, Friends of Toki, and Albor.
Details are scant, but Irsay certainly appears able to provide substantial financial backing to develop and maintain a sea pen or other type of sanctuary. If she's moved to her native waters on the west coast, Lolita's new custodians may include indigenous Salish people, the Lummi Tribe, who view her and other orcas as sacred beings. The group has strongly advocated for Lolita's release from the marine park.
The project is expected to cost at least $15 million, according to Lummi Tribe media relations.
Irsay's office declined to offer further details and said more information would be released at the March 30 event.
Phil Demers, who got to know Kiska while working at the marine park Marineland in Canada for 12 years, says observers should temper their expectations. He says that a whale sanctuary was supposed to have been built for Kiska in Nova Scotia as far back as 2019, but the project was not completed before her death, on account of environmental concerns with the proposed site, logistical hurdles, and what Demers deems to have been unrealistic planning.
"I see a timely PR statement," Demers says of the recent announcement about Lolita, AKA Toki. "They see Kiska has died. They see more eyes on Toki and criticism growing."
During a flyover in December 2022 above the Miami Seaquarium, the animal-rights activist says, he saw Lolita's tank filled with green algae and other muck while the dolphin tanks appeared pristine. It reminded him of maintenance issues in Kiska's tank and convinced him that keeping Lolita at the Miami park while waiting for a faraway whale sanctuary to be built would put her health in peril.
"I'm seeing Toki in the same condition Kiska was in, and I'm seeing the exact-same messages being repeated," says Demers. "We can't continue to wait for a whale utopia to be built and wait for optimal conditions for her to enter this utopia... The longer we wait for perfection, the likelier it becomes that she is going to die."
He's advocating for the whale to be removed immediately to another, larger-scale marine park that, in his view, may be better equipped to care for her.
Veterinarian Jim McBain, who Friends of Toki enlisted, said in December that water quality was getting better in the Seaquarium orca tank thanks to changes in the filter media and attempts to modernize the water recirculation system, which he conceded was outdated.
The Seaquarium tells New Times that there has been "significant improvement to the water quality" since the Dolphin Co., Albor's company, bought the Seaquarium in 2021. The company owns more than 30 marine-themed amusement parks and dolphin enclosures worldwide.
"These things will take time," says Michael Mountain, cofounder of the group.
As for Kiska's release, his group says that negotiations with Marineland had been stymied for an extended period after the park was criminally charged in Canada for alleged mistreatment of animals. (The charges were later dropped.) Mountain maintains that the COVID-19 pandemic also interfered with plans for Kiska's transport.
Charles Vinick, who serves on the Whale Sanctuary Project board and is the executive director of Friends of Toki, previously worked on the effort to move the captive orca Keiko back into the wild in the late 1990s. Keiko had starred in the 1993 movie Free Willy before a campaign mounted to free him from captivity. He was released into Icelandic waters in 2002 but died of pneumonia the following year at the estimated age of 27.
Plans for Lolita's release have not contemplated a full release to the wild but rather a transport to a monitored sanctuary.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a statement saying Lolita's release would bring "long-awaited relief after five miserable decades in a cramped tank," which federal inspectors previously determined does not meet minimum size requirements.
"If Lolita is finally returned to her home waters, there will be cheers from around the world, including from PETA, which has pursued several lawsuits on Lolita's behalf and battered the Seaquarium with protests demanding her freedom for years," said PETA vice president and general counsel Jared Goodman.
Before she makes a trip back home, Lolita will likely undergo transport training that dolphin experts have long said would be a key part of preparing for the daunting move. Dolphin trainers interviewed by New Times over the years noted that it would be helpful if some of her Seaquarium trainers, with whom she's formed strong relationships, accompanied her en route. They are the best bets in making her feel safe throughout the trip.
A veterinary report released in February by McBain indicated that Lolita's health was improving from the infection.
"It's too early to get excited," reads the February 28 report, "however, there is reason to allow some optimism to enter the discussion."