MIAMI (AP) — More than 50 years after the orca known as Lolita was captured for public display, there are plans to return it from the Miami Seaquarium to its home waters in the Pacific Northwest, home to a nearly century-old, endangered killer whale , believed to be her mother, is still swimming.
An unlikely coalition of the theme park’s owner, an animal rights group and an NFL owner-philanthropist announced the agreement during a news conference Thursday.
“I’m excited to be a part of Lolita’s journey to freedom,” said Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. “I know that Lolita wants to go to open water.”
Lolita, also known as Tokitae, was around 4 years old when she was captured in Puget Sound in the summer of 1970, during a time of deadly orca raids. She spent decades performing to paying crowds before falling ill.
Last year the Miami Seaquarium announced that they would no longer do shows with her, under an agreement with federal regulators. Lolita — now 57 years old and weighing 5,000 pounds (2,267 kilograms) — currently lives in a tank that measures 80 feet by 35 feet (24 meters by 11 meters) and is 20 feet (6 meters) deep.
The orca named Ocean Sun, believed to be her mother, continues to swim freely with other members of her clan – known as L pod – and is believed to be in her 90s. This has left supporters of its release optimistic that Tokitae might yet have a long life in the wild.
“It’s a step towards restoring our natural environment and fixing what we’ve screwed up through exploitation and development,” said Howard Garrett, chief executive officer of the Orca Network advocacy group, based on Whidbey Island, Washington state. “I think she’ll be excited and relieved to be back home — it’s her old neighborhood.”
The agreement between Irsay; Eduardo Albor, who runs the Dolphin Company, which owns the Seaquarium; and Florida non-profit organization Friends of Toki, co-founded by environmentalist Pritam Singh; still faces hurdles to get government approval.
The time frame for the animal’s move could be 18 to 24 months away, the group said, and the cost could reach $20 million.
The plan is to plane Lolita to a marine sanctuary in the waters between Washington and Canada, where she will first swim in a large net while trainers and veterinarians teach her how to catch fish.
She also needs to build muscle, as orcas typically swim about 40 miles a day, said Raynell Morris, a Lummi Indian tribe elder in Washington who also serves on the board of Friends of Toki.
“She was 4 when she was kidnapped, so she learned to hunt. She knows her family song,” Morris said. “She will remember, but it will take time.”
The orca will be cared for 24/7 until it adjusts to its new environment.
Caregivers at the Seaquarium are already preparing them for the trip, officials said.
The Dolphin Company acquired Seaquarium in 2021. It operates around 27 other parks and habitats in Mexico, Argentina, the Caribbean and Italy.
The legacy of whaling in the 1960s and ’70s continues to haunt a distinct group of endangered, salmon-eating orcas known as southern resident killer whales, who spend much of their time in the waters between Washington and Canada.
At least 13 orcas died in the raids and 45 were shipped to theme parks around the world, reducing Puget Sound’s population by about 40% and help cause problems with inbreeding that remains a problem today.
Today, only 73 remain of the southern resident population, which includes three family groups called pods, according to the Center for Whale Research on the island of San Juan in Washington state. That’s just two animals more than in 1971.
Animal rights activists, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have long campaigned to allow Tokitae to spend her final years at home in a controlled environment.
Activists often protest along the road past the Seaquarium, which they have described as an “abuse park”. PETA doesn’t want Lolita to suffer the same fate as her partner Hugo, who died of a brain aneurysm in 1980 after repeatedly ramming his head into the walls of the tank.
Albor said Thursday that when his company acquired the Seaquarium, he and his daughter visited as tourists. He said his daughter was upset when she watched Lolita’s show, despite many others in the crowd squealing with delight.
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.
“It has always been our commitment at The Dolphin Company to prioritize animal welfare above all else,” said Albor. “Finding a brighter future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava called the move plan historic, saying, “So many have hoped and prayed for this outcome for many, many years.”
The Seaquarium opened in 1955 on Virginia Key just east of downtown Miami. It features a variety of creatures, including dolphins, sea lions, manatees, reef fish and sharks, and was the location for 88 episodes of the television series Pinball, as well as films in the 1960s.
Johnson reported from Seattle.
Source : news.yahoo.com