After 50 years, a Florida aquarium plans to return Lolita the orca to her home waters

Officials announced Thursday plans to return Lolita — an orca that has lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years — to its home waters in the Pacific Northwest. Here, trainer Marcia Hinton pets Lolita, a captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, March 9, 1995. Nuri Vallbona/AP

Nearly five decades after being captured and held in the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita the orca will finally be able to return to the Pacific to live out the rest of her days.

During a news conference Thursday, the Miami Seaquarium announced its plans to move the nearly 5,000-pound killer whale — who was initially called Tokitae, or Toki — to her original home in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

And after years of growing pressure from animal rights activists calling for Lolita’s release from the Miami aquarium, officials announced their plans for the “process of returning [Lolita] to her home waters.”

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The news conference was held in part by Miami Seaquarium, the Florida nonprofit Friends of Lolita and the philanthropist and owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, Jim Irsay.

“This is a very special day,” Eduardo Albor, CEO of the Dolphin Company, said during the news conference. “It is amazing to see how many things you can achieve in one year when actions take place of words.”

The Seaquarium signed a deal with Friends of Lolita to relocate the orca, in addition to receiving financial assistance from Irsay.

“I’m excited about being part of Lolita’s journey,” Irsay said. “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved whales, just loved whales because [of] the power, the greatness of them and how gentle they are.”

Irsay told reporters that the cost to relocate Lolita could be a “big number,” as officials haven’t disclosed a specific budget or number tied to her relocation. As of now, the plan for Lolita is to build her an ocean sanctuary with netting, where she will receive constant care from trainers.

“She’s lived this long to have this opportunity and my only mission … is to help this whale to get free,” Irsay said.

Lolita was captured from the Pacific coast near Seattle nearly 50 years ago at the age of 4. The orca, who is believed to be 57 years old, was finally able to retire last spring from exhibition shows under an agreement with federal regulators.

She is currently the oldest orca to be held in captivity.

Over the last decade, animal rights groups have held demonstrations and filed lawsuits seeking to improve Lolita’s conditions at the Seaquarium. Members of the Lummi Nation in Seattle have even threatened to sue for her release.

NPR’s Ari Daniel contributed to this report.

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