Mar 30, 2023 - News

Inside the $20M plan to move Lolita the orca from the Miami Seaquarium

The audience at the Miami Seaquarium watching Lolita the killer whale at its 40th anniversary performance. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The audience at the Miami Seaquarium watching Lolita the whale at her 40th anniversary performance. Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After more than 50 years in captivity, the orca known as Lolita may soon leave Miami Seaquarium to rejoin her native waters in the Pacific Northwest, where she was captured as a baby.

Why it matters: Lolita, also known as Tokitae, is considered one of the oldest captive orcas in the U.S.

  • For years, animal rights groups have called for her release, pointing to reports of mistreatment and the 20-foot-deep tank they say can't suitably house a 5,000-pound creature.

Driving the news: A coalition including the Seaquarium, a whale conservation group and billionaire NFL owner Jim Irsay announced a proposal Thursday to relocate the 57-year-old orca to a netted sanctuary in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington.

  • The project is still in its planning stages, but the Seaquarium released a statement estimating it could take 18-24 months before relocation is possible.
  • The group estimates it could cost between $15 million and $20 million to move Lolita, including renting a cargo plane, building the enclosure and stationing trainers and veterinarians there to care for her.

Yes, but: Not everyone agrees that releasing Lolita is what's best for the aging orca that's still undergoing medical treatment.

What they're saying: Charles Vinick, executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, tells Axios that the group is committed to caring for Lolita forever.

  • The netted enclosure would allow her to enjoy a better quality of life than her current tank, he says, and to give her the human interaction she needs while readjusting to her native waters.
  • Vinick said Lolita's vets have signed off on the move and that the team would seek to bring along some of her current trainers at the Seaquarium to help her adapt.
  • "None of us would do it if we thought it was a risk to her health," he said.

Irsay, a philanthropist who's been fascinated with whales since he was a child, said he's committed to Lolita's long-term well-being and, ultimately, hopes she can return to the open ocean one day.

  • "I know Lolita wants to get to free waters. I don't care what anyone says," he said. "She has lived this long to have this opportunity."

The other side: Shanna Simpson, Lolita's former senior trainer of six years at the Seaquarium, tells Axios it would be "absolute cruelty" to remove the orca from her home of five decades.

  • Simpson, who is now an animal curator at a zoo in Kansas, said she fears Lolita wouldn't survive the trip to Washington due to the stress and would be exposed to untreated, polluted water in Puget Sound.
  • "Are you going to take your dog and just drop him off in the wild because that's where they originally came from?" she said.

What's next: The relocation plan would require federal approval, in part because Lolita is classified as an endangered Southern resident whale, and local approval from Washington to build the enclosure, Vinick said, adding that discussions have started.


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