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"Historic" deal reached to free the killer whale Lolita after more than 50 years in captivity

Miami Seaquarium's Lolita the orca will be returned to her native waters
Miami Seaquarium's Lolita the orca will be returned to her native waters 01:32

More than five decades after her capture, the 5,000-pound killer whale known best by her stage name, Lolita, may finally be returned to her natural habitat in the coming years. 

The orca, once a star performer while in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium, is now 57 and retired from exhibition shows as of last spring. Answering to growing pressure from animal rights activists who have long called for Lolita's release from the aquarium — where she is confined to a tank that reaches a maximum depth of about 20 feet — officials announced "historic" plans on Thursday to transfer the animal back to "home waters" in the Pacific Northwest.

The announcement came during a news conference held by the Miami Seaquarium, the Florida-based non-profit organization Friends of Toki and Jim Irsay, a philanthropist and the owner of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts football team. Previously called Friends of Lolita, the non-profit organization changed its title to reflect the whale's indigenous name Tokitae, or Toki for short. Co-founded by environmentalist Pritam Singh, the organization is spearheading efforts to release the orca back into the wild.

Although releasing Lolita from captivity will involve a number of hurdles, like re-training the animal to hunt and physically moving her across the country, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at Thursday's conference that completing the transfer largely depends on the health of the aging whale. Lolita has received consistent veterinary care since late last year.

"To all of you who care, we want to thank you for your care and concern of Loki," Cava said. "The most important thing is Toki's  long-term wellbeing, and together, guided by the experts, we will continue to do what's best for her."

This 1995 photo shows trainer Marcia Hinton with Lolita during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium, in Miami. Nuri Vallbona, AP

The proposed plan will likely be expensive and could take up to two years, said Irsay, who has committed to financing Lolita's transfer and estimated that the move may cost between $15 and $20 million. It involves creating a sequestered area, with netting, in the ocean off the coast of Washington and moving Lolita there along with two dolphins that currently live with the orca in captivity. Hired trainers would then be tasked with teaching the whale how to fend for herself.

"We have to teach her how to catch fish again," Irsay said, noting that Lolita "doesn't know how to do that anymore" because "she's been in captivity too long."

Freeing Lolita came after a deal was reached between the Miami Seaquarium and Friends of Toki. Under the terms of the "binding agreement," the aquarium has pledged to do what it can "to bring to life the dream of returning Lolita to an ocean sanctuary," officials said in a news release introducing the transfer plan.

"Today, March 30th, for the first time ever, a private company with marine mammals under human care, and a non-profit animal welfare organization, executed a binding agreement with one goal - return the beloved Lolita to her home waters," the Seaquarium wrote in a separate statement, adding that the orca "will receive the highest quality care as the team works to make relocation possible in the next 18 to 24 months."

The Dolphin Company, which owns the Miami Seaquarium and posted the statement to its Twitter page on Thursday afternoon, said it was "proud to share" news of the Seaquarium's binding partnership with Friends of Lolita, a non-profit organization based in Florida, "to change Lolita's future."

Eduardo Albor, the CEO of the Dolphin Company, said at Thursday's conference that he was personally dedicated to releasing the orca after taking his daughter to one of Lolita's performances. His daughter told him that she could not stay to watch the show because Lolita's tank was so small, Albor said.

"It has always been our commitment at The Dolphin Company that we place the highest priority on the well-being of animals, above all else," Albor said in a written statement.

"Finding a better future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium," the statement continued. "With the help of Jim Irsay and Pritam Singh, we are bringing that dream, the dream of returning Lolita to her home waters, closer than ever."

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