Lolita, the 2nd-oldest orca in captivity, is finally getting released after more than 50 years

Lolita performing alongside her trainers at the Miami Seaquarium in 2013. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Miami Seaquarium's star orca, Lolita, who has spent more than 50 years in captivity, will soon bid adieu to her tiny tank in Florida and live out the rest of her days in her home waters of the Pacific Northwest. 

Lolita, also known as Tokitae — the Coast Salish people's word for 'nice day, pretty colors' — or Toki for short, is a 57-year-old female orca (Orcinus orca) from the now-endangered Southern Resident orcas that live off the coasts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. She is currently the second oldest orca in captivity behind Corky, a 58-year-old male who resides at SeaWorld San Diego. 

Lolita arrived at Miami Seaquarium in 1970 after a group of men captured her and 79 other orcas at a cove on Whidbey Island, Washington in one of the largest and most widely condemned orca-capture events in history, according to The Guardian. Since then, Lolita has lived and performed tricks in an aquarium pool, which is the smallest of its kind in North America, until March 2022, when she was retired from public shows, according to the U.S.-based non-profit organization In Defence of Animals

The decision to relocate Lolita to her home waters was announced March 30 at a press conference jointly held by The Dolphin Company, which owns Miami Seaquarium, and the conservation group Friends of Lolita, who have been campaigning for Lolita to be returned home since she retired. Lolita is too old to be successfully released into the wild, so she will be moved to a new sea pen where she will spend her retirement being looked after by trainers, according to a related statement. (It is unclear when Lolita will be moved and how large and where her new home will be.)

Related: Inbreeding may be causing orca population in the Pacific Northwest to crash 

Campaigners call for Lolita's release at a rally in Seattle, Washington in 2017. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

In the wild, the average lifespan of female orcas is 46 years, but some can live for up to 80 or 90 years, according to the U.K.-based organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), while the average lifespan of males is only 30, although some can live for between 50 and 60 years. However, captive orcas rarely live this long. 

It is hoped that moving Lolita could potentially extend her life past what is possible in captivity, according to the statement. 

It is rare for captive orcas to be returned to the wild. The only captive orca from North America to be released into the wild was Keiko, who famously starred in the 1993 film "Free Willy." Keiko was released in 2002 after a massive petition for his release, but he died from pneumonia in the waters of Norway in 2003, which sparked fears that orcas could not be reintegrated into the wild. But in the BBC documentary Frozen Planet II, a formerly captive orca from Russia was filmed hunting and playing with a pod of orcas, which suggested that full integration into the wild is possible.

Keeping orcas in captivity is highly controversial. Since 1961 when the first wild orca was captured, 174 orcas have died in captivity, which doesn't include the 30 miscarried or stillborn calves from expecting captive mothers, according to WDC. 

Those that survive have a poor quality of life and can suffer from a wide variety of health problems, such as dorsal fin collapse (particularly among males) and tooth damage, according to the nonprofit Dolphin Project. Captive orcas also have behavioral impacts due to isolation from other orcas. The cooped-up cetaceans can become depressed to the point that they self-harm or become highly aggressive toward other orcas and their human handlers. So far, four people have been killed by orcas in captivity, three of which were killed by the same male orca known as Tilikum, according to the Dolphin Project.

On March 9, Canada's last captive orca Kiska, nicknamed "world's loneliest orca," died after more than 40 years in captivity, Reuters reported. During this time, she saw all five of her calves die before they reached 7 years old.

Harry Baker
Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based staff writer at Live Science. He studied Marine Biology at the University of Exeter (Penryn campus) and after graduating started his own blog site "Marine Madness," which he continues to run with other ocean enthusiasts. He is also interested in evolution, climate change, robots, space exploration, environmental conservation and anything that's been fossilized. When not at work he can be found watching sci-fi films, playing old Pokemon games or running (probably slower than he'd like).