Lolita, the oldest orca in captivity, was taken from her home in the Pacific Northwest when she was just 4 years old – now, over 50 years on, she’s preparing to finally be released back into her native waters.
After growing concerns from animal rights groups, Miami Seaquarium (where Lolita, previously known as Tokitae, is currently held) announced at a press conference on Thursday their plans to release the over 2,260-kilogram (5,000-pound) gentle giant.
As a result of a decade of protests and filed lawsuits, the non-profit organization Friends of Toki was finally able to sign a deal with the Seaquarium to secure the orca’s release. Lolita’s relocation will be receiving financial assistance from philanthropist and NFL owner Jim Irsay.
While the relocation could be up to 24 months away and cost around $20 million, the plans currently see Lolita returned to the Pacific Northwest, where she will initially be under the care of trainers in an enclosed sanctuary. There, she will be taught to hunt and helped to build up muscle, better equipping her for life in the wild.
The now 57-year-old orca retired from performing just last year, and currently resides in a 24- by 11-meter (80 by 35 foot) tank.
“It’s a step toward restoring our natural environment, fixing what we’ve messed up with exploitation and development,” said president of the board of advocacy group Orca Network, Howard Garrett, AP News reports. “I think she’ll be excited and relieved to be home — it’s her old neighborhood.”
Known as the southern resident killer whales, Lolita is a member of an endangered group of orcas inhabiting the waters between Washington and Canada, where it’s thought only 73 individuals remain. The group suffered a significant population decrease in the 1960s and 70s when whale roundups saw 45 orcas, including Lolita, captured and delivered to theme parks around the world.
Despite Lolita’s impressive age, it’s thought that her nearly 100-year-old mother is one of the few remaining orcas that still swim the Pacific Northwest waters, belonging to a clan called L pod. Her mother’s age has given advocates hope that Lolita may too have many more years of freedom ahead of her.