Caregivers at a Florida ocean park are taking steps to eventually return a 57-year-old whale back to its home waters in Washington's Puget Sound after more than five decades of captivity. But the timeline is uncertain.
Miami Seaquarium says Lolita — also known as Tokitae, or Toki for short — is in stable condition but has experienced multiple health scares in recent years, raising concerns about transporting the massive orca across the country.
"The plan for Lolita, which requires authorization from local and federal authorities, is guided by the world’s foremost experts in marine mammal care, along with her dedicated trainers," the Miami Seaquarium said in a statement. "These experts have extensive experience in marine mammal transport and are already introducing training to prepare Lolita for relocation."
After years of fighting by animal rights activists to have Lolita freed from her tank in Florida, Miami Seaquarium executives entered a binding agreement in March with the non-profit animal welfare group Friends of Toki, agreeing to return the 5,000-pound mammal back home.
"The story of Lolita the orca has been near and dear to my heart," said Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who helped broker the deal. "I am proud — and enthusiastic — to play a role in finally returning Lolita to her native Pacific Northwest."
Now veterinarians and trainers are working to ensure she is strong enough to survive the cross-country journey and acclimate to her new home. In recent months, new upgrades have been installed in Lolita's pool to improve water quality and better regulate temperatures to mimic those of the Pacific Northwest.
"Returning Lolita to her home waters does not mean releasing her into the open ocean," Miami Seaquarium said in a statement. "She is expected to remain under human care, in a protected habitat, for the rest of her life."
Park officials say Lolita will continue to receive enrichment, high-quality nutrition and medical care ahead of the expected move. However, the plan still needs to be approved by federal and state regulators, which could take months or even years.
Lolita retired from performing last year and has been living in a tank measuring 80 feet by 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep.
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