MIAMI (AP) — Lolita, an orca whale held captive for more than a half-century, died Friday at the Miami Seaquarium as caregivers prepared to move her from the theme park in the near future.
The Seaquarium posted a statement from the nonprofit group Friends of Toki on social media that Lolita — also known as Tokitae, or Toki — started exhibiting serious signs of discomfort over the past two days. Seaquarium and Friends of Toki medical team members began treating her immediately and aggressively, but the 57-year-old orca died from an apparent renal condition, the statement said.
“Toki was an inspiration to all who had the fortune to hear her story and especially to the Lummi nation that considered her family,” the Friends of Toki statement said. “Those who have had the privilege to spend time with her will forever remember her beautiful spirit.”
Animal rights activists have been fighting for years to have Lolita freed from her tank at the Miami Seaquarium. The park’s relatively new owner, The Dolphin Company, and the nonprofit Friends of Toki announced a plan in March to possibly move her to a natural sea pen in the Pacific Northwest, with the financial backing of Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.
“I am heartbroken that Toki has left us,” Irsay said in a statement. “Her story captured my heart, just as it did millions of others. I was honored to be part of the team working to return her to her indigenous home, and I take solace in knowing that we significantly improved her living conditions this past year. Her spirit and grace have touched so many. Rest in peace, dear Toki.”
The Lummi Nation, a Native American tribe based in Washington state, refers to orcas as “qwe ’lhol mechen,” which means “our relations below the waves.” The tribe has spent years working to secure Lolita’s release and to return to her home waters.
“The Lummi Nation is saddened by the news that our beloved Orca relative has passed away at the estimated age of 57 years old,” Chairman Tony Hillaire said in a statement. “Our hearts are with all those impacted by this news; our hearts are with her family. We stand in solidarity with our Lummi members whom poured their hearts and souls into bringing Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home.”
Lolita retired from performing last spring as a condition of the park’s new exhibitor’s license with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She’s not been publicly displayed since. In recent months, new upgrades had been installed to better filter the pool and regulate her water temperature.
Federal and state regulators would have had to approve any plan to move Lolita, and that could have taken months or years. The 5,000-pound (2,267-kilogram) had been living for years in a tank that measures 80 feet by 35 feet (24 meters by 11 meters) and is 20 feet (6 meters) deep.