Thursday 6 April 2023

Lolita, the 2nd-oldest orca in captivity, is finally getting released after more than 50 years


Miami Seaquarium's star orca, Lolita, who has spent more than 50 years in captivity,

will soon bid adieu to her tiny tank in Florida and live out the rest of her days in her home waters of the Pacific Northwest. 

Lolita, also known as Tokitae — the Coast Salish people's word for 'nice day, pretty colors'(opens in new tab) — or Toki for short, is a 57-year-old female orca (Orcinus orca) from the now-endangered Southern Resident orcas that live off the coasts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. She is currently the second oldest orca in captivity behind Corky, a 58-year-old male who resides at SeaWorld San Diego. 

Lolita arrived at Miami Seaquarium in 1970 after a group of men captured her and 79 other orcas at a cove on Whidbey Island, Washington in one of the largest and most widely condemned orca-capture events in history, according to The Guardian(opens in new tab). Since then, Lolita has lived and performed tricks in an aquarium pool, which is the smallest of its kind in North America, until March 2022, when she was retired from public shows, according to the U.S.-based non-profit organization In Defence of Animals(opens in new tab)

The decision to relocate Lolita to her home waters was announced March 30 at a press conference(opens in new tab) jointly held by The Dolphin Company, which owns Miami Seaquarium, and the conservation group Friends of Lolita, who have been campaigning for Lolita to be returned home since she retired. Lolita is too old to be successfully released into the wild, so she will be moved to a new sea pen where she will spend her retirement being looked after by trainers, according to a related statement(opens in new tab). (It is unclear when Lolita will be moved and how large and where her new home will be.)

In the wild, the average lifespan of female orcas is 46 years, but some can live for up to 80 or 90 years, according to the U.K.-based organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC)(opens in new tab), while the average lifespan of males is only 30, although some can live for between 50 and 60 years. However, captive orcas rarely live this long. 

It is hoped that moving Lolita could potentially extend her life past what is possible in captivity, according to the statement. 

It is rare for captive orcas to be returned to the wild. The only captive orca from North America to be released into the wild was Keiko, who famously starred in the 1993 film "Free Willy." Keiko was released in 2002 after a massive petition for his release, but he died from pneumonia in the waters of Norway in 2003, which sparked fears that orcas could not be reintegrated into the wild. But in the BBC documentary Frozen Planet II, a formerly captive orca from Russia was filmed hunting and playing with a pod of orcas, which suggested that full integration into the wild is possible.

Keeping orcas in captivity is highly controversial. Since 1961 when the first wild orca was captured, 174 orcas have died in captivity, which doesn't include the 30 miscarried or stillborn calves from expecting captive mothers, according to WDC. 

Those that survive have a poor quality of life and can suffer from a wide variety of health problems, such as dorsal fin collapse (particularly among males) and tooth damage, according to the nonprofit Dolphin Project(opens in new tab). Captive orcas also have behavioral impacts due to isolation from other orcas. The cooped-up cetaceans can become depressed to the point that they self-harm or become highly aggressive toward other orcas and their human handlers. So far, four people have been killed by orcas in captivity, three of which were killed by the same male orca known as Tilikum, according to the Dolphin Project.

On March 9, Canada's last captive orca Kiska, nicknamed "world's loneliest orca," died after more than 40 years in captivity, Reuters(opens in new tab) reported. During this time, she saw all five of her calves die before they reached 7 years old.

Live Science

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