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Lolita, oldest orca held in captivity, dies before chance to return to the ocean

Lolita was captured in the Pacific coast near Seattle nearly 50 years ago at the age of 4.
Jeff Greenberg
/
Universal Images Group via Getty
Lolita was captured in the Pacific coast near Seattle nearly 50 years ago at the age of 4.

Lolita, the oldest orca held in captivity, died on Friday — less than five months after the Miami Seaquarium announced plans to release her back into her native ocean waters.

The Seaquarium said Lolita, believed to be about 57 years old, began to exhibit "serious signs of discomfort" over the last few days. Despite medical treatment, the orca died on Friday afternoon after suffering a what appeared to be a "renal condition," the Seaquarium said. The aquatic park was closed on Saturday for the staff to mourn the loss.

"Those who have had the privilege to spend time with her will forever remember her beautiful spirit," the Seaquarium said in a statement.

The Seaquarium did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment on more details of her death.

The orca, initially known as Tokitae or Toki, was 4 years old when she was captured from the Pacific coast near Seattle. Over the next five decades, Lolita became the the star attraction at the Seaquarium, performing about twice a day until she was retiredin 2022.

Female orcas typically live about 50 years "but can live up to at least 90 years in the wild," according to NOAA Fisheries.

In March of this year, the Seaquarium announced plans to return Lolita back to the the waters of the Pacific where she could spend her final days. The decision came after years of pressure from animal rights groups to allow the aging orca to spend her final days swimming freely in her natural habitat.

But months later, Lolita remained at the aquarium. The Dolphin Company, which owns the Seaquarium, had saidthat the orca would be relocated sometime between October 2024 and April 2025.

Eduardo Albor, the CEO of the Dolphin Company, saidhe was heartbroken by the loss, adding that his affinity for the orca was "love at first sight."

For many, the news of her death also came as a surprise because the Seaquarium had saidon Tuesday that Lolita was in "current stable health" and her condition was "improving." Signs of her deteriorating health appeared the next day, according to the aquarium.

Save Lolita, a group that had campaigned for the orca's release, said Lolita may never have experienced the freedom she deserved but she played a major role in bringing attention to the ethical concerns around captivity.

"Her story will forever remind us of the urgent need to protect our oceans and the magnificent creatures that call them home," the group said in a statement.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said Lolita's mistreatment was "unforgivable."

"You were so close to freedom at a sanctuary, but time ran out. Now you're finally free from all the pain and suffering," PETA wroteon X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.