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Aquarium agrees to return Lolita the orca to Pacific 50 years after capture

Lolita was part of a pod of the endangered southern resident killer whales that roam waters off British Columbia and the U.S. northwest.
In this March 9, 1995, file photo, trainer Marcia Hinton pets Lolita, a captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami. NURI VALLBONA/MIAMI HERALD VIA AP

Half a century of captivity appears to be coming to an end for a southern resident killer whale now retired in a Florida aquarium after a lifetime of ­performing.

Lolita’s owner and killer whale advocates announced Thursday that they plan to see the 57-year-old orca, also called Tokitae or Toki, returned to her Pacific Northwest home in the hopes of reuniting her with ­family members in L-pod.

“This is a momentous, historic event,” said Howard Garrett, president of the Orca Network in Washington state, which has lobbied for the whale’s release since 1995.

He expects that the orca would first go into a sea pen, possibly among the San Juan Islands, before any release and she would be monitored the whole time. “If she needs help, she’ll get help,” Garrett said. “She won’t just be let loose.”

But Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of B.C., injected a note of caution, pointing out that Lolita is old.

He recalled the effort to release Keiko, star of the Free Willy movie, who was initially in a sea pen then released, ending up in waters off Norway. “He died alone of pneumonia,” Trites said. “And it shows that in this case, he was never accepted back into a pod of killer whales.”

“I don’t think she is a candidate to be released because of her age. She’s been cared for almost her entire life and is very unlikely to be accepted again.”

There’s also the question of whether Lolita is mentally healthy enough, Trites said. She has been stressed in the past by changes to her habitat.

The proposed move could be overwhelming for her, he said.

A lot of important symbolism is involved in the plan, Trites said. “At the same time, we are talking about the life of an animal and what is in her best interest.”

There is also a question of whether Lolita will bring a pathogen into marine waters of the Pacific.

The Dolphin Company, owner of the Miami Seaquarium where the whale lives, the non-profit Friends of Lolita and businessman Jim Irsay, owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, developed the plan. Lolita will likely be moved in 18 to 24 months but it could happen earlier.

Eduardo Albor, chief executive of The Dolphin Company, said finding a better future for Lolita was one reason his company recently bought the aquarium.

When considering purchasing the park, Albor took his daughter for a visit where she said: “This place is too small for Lolita” and made him promise to help the orca if his company bought the park.

Pritam Singh, co-founder of Friends of Lolita, said it’s a “sacred privilege” to bring Lolita home under the terms of the binding agreement.

Irsay is partnering with those organizations to move the orca from her tank, which measures 24 metres by 11 metres and is six metres deep. The mission will cost $15 million to $20 million US, they said.

“I’m excited to be a part of Lolita’s journey to freedom,” Irsay said. “I know Lolita wants to get to free waters.”

Lolita is believed to have been four years old when captured, at a time when round-ups were carried out to obtain orcas for commercial aquariums where they performed tricks to entertain visitors.

Sealand of the Pacific, on Beach Drive in Oak Bay, was home to several performing killer whales until it closed in the early 1990s.

Lolita had been a major draw at the Miami aquarium, but her health declined in recent years. She appears healthy these days.

Garrett is optimistic that she could live for another 20 to 30 years in the wild. She is past her reproductive years.

The southern resident killer whale population is about 70 and Canada has deemed them critically endangered. They mainly spend their lives in B.C. and Washington state waters.

The Lummi Nation, along with organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have been fighting for years for Lolita’s release. The Orca Network said her space is the oldest and smallest container for whales in the U.S.

Orca communities have their own dialects. Toki calls out in the L-pod dialect, Garrett said. It is not known how much of her original communication skills she possesses.

Greg McElroy, founding director of the Canadian Orca Rescue Society of Victoria, said a language, a culture and a family bond does not break because she has been in captivity. “I believe that she should be given the opportunity to speak to her family again. Her language is unique to her pod,” McElroy said.

Ocean Sun, believed to be Lolita’s mother, is still alive, said Garrett, who thinks the mother would recognize her. “These are indelible memories and they have huge brains. That’s a lot of memory capacity.”

These days, it is routine to move orcas as handlers follow a set of procedures, he said. The animal is in a sling and lifted into a container of water. Trucks and planes are used to transport orcas.

Garrett expects that Lolita will pick up the ability to feed in the wild again — something she would have done before captivity. “She may have that muscle memory still.” Handlers may initially give her partially frozen food for practice.

He predicts that the experience of returning to her natural environment will make the orca feel better.

“Immersion in natural seawater is the best place for any marine mammal,” he said. “I think it will elevate her mood and spirits.”

A spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada said it does not have a role, saying it all seems to be happening in U.S. waters.

Other efforts to reunite orcas with their families have had mixed results.

Springer, a member of the northern resident killer whale group, was found in Puget Sound where she followed ferries for company. In 2002, she was moved to a pen off northeastern Vancouver Island and subsequently released to her family.

Springer was about two years old at the time and has thrived. She is the mother to two calves. Trites noted that she was still a wild orca when reintroduced.

Luna, a young southern resident killer whale also from the L-pod, was also separated from his pod living in Nootka Sound. He, too, followed boats; Luna died after colliding with a propeller in 2006.

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