Announcement possible for orca Tokitae/Lolita's return to Puget Sound from captivity

The unthinkable may be possible: there are now talks about Tokitae, an orca ripped from her family and flown to the other side of the country, coming home to Puget Sound.

Tokitae, also known by her stage name ‘Lolita,’ has been held in captivity for more than 50 years. During that time, every other orca removed from the waters during that now infamous era has died. Tokitae is the outlier – she’s survived in one of the smallest tanks in the world that’s holding an orca.

Over the past two years, Tokitae has garnered more and more attention, often for all the wrong reasons.

A scathing report in June 2021 accused the former owners of the Miami Seaquarium of feeding rotten fish to Tokitae. In the months ahead, doctors had to pay special attention to her health as she wasn’t doing well.

However, a new owner came on board. That’s when Friends of Lolita, a nonprofit, began working with the new ownership in an attempt to boost her health.

Pritam Singh, the co-founder, told FOX 13 in late-2022 that he believed returning Tokitae to her native waters in the Salish Sea was best for her.


Philanthropist says bringing Tokitae home is 'a real possibility'

Talks of Tokitae, a captive orca held in Miami, returning to the Salish Sea are beginning again after a surprise rebound in health in recent days.

"Our feeling is as soon as possible, but we don’t really know when that is. Two weeks ago, 10 days ago, she was really sick. We were frightened and had this pit in our stomach," Singh said in 2022. 

The Miami Seaquarium issued a media invite on Tuesday for what is being billed as an announcement of a "historic initiative" and to "join forces to return beloved orca, Lolita, from Miami Seaquarium to her home waters."

Singh is one of four speakers at Thursday’s event at the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay is listed as a "philanthropist and special guest" at the event. He announced on Twitter that he’ll have "a HUGE ANNOUNCEMENT about the future of LOLITA the orca" on Thursday. 

Howard Garrett, a long-time advocate for bringing Tokitae home, told FOX 13 that he’s paying close attention to Irsay’s involvement. He's a new name in Tokitae's story.

Members of Lummi Nation that have long fought to bring Tokitae home have been raising funds for years to build an open-sea pen that would allow the orca access to her home waters, while also being able to communicate with family members without the risk of her injuring herself at sea. One of those elders told FOX 13 that she plans to attend Thursday’s event.

It’s unclear what a timeline would look like if Tokitae is indeed coming home, though there are a number of hoops and ladders that would need to be cleared: government entities would need to sign off, funds would be required, and a location would need to be prepared to release Tokitae after a cross-country journey.

All of that said, those who have followed this story closely say today’s news is perhaps the closest her return has ever come to reality in more than 50 years.

Tokitae's timeline

c. 1966

Believed to have been born in 1966 in the L Pod of the southern resident orcas. 


Aug 8: She was captured from Penn Cove in Puget Sound at four years old. Tokitae was one of seven of young orcas captured in Puget Sound that day and was then sold to marine mammal parks around the world. The other six orcas taken have since died in captivity. 

Sept. 24: Tokitae arrives at Miami Seaquarium, where she has remained since. She was given the name ‘Lolita’ by trainers. She was sold for $6,000, which in today's amounts would be about $46,046. 

November: Miami Seaquarium adds another whale in Lolita's 20-foot-deep tank-- an orca named Hugo. Both were trained to perform for a public audience. 


March 4: Trainers reported that Hugo repeatedly would slam his head against the tank walls. On March 4, he hit his head so hard that he had an aneurysm and died. 

Tokitae was alone again before the aquarium added dolphins to her enclosure. Orcas are social creatures and travel in pods in the dozens. 


Tokitae became the subject of a documentary called Lolita: Slave to Entertainment, where activists argued against her conditions of containment and argued that she should be reintroduced into the wild. This predates the well-known Blackfish documentary, which shed a light on performing whales in captivity. 


Reports of Tokitae's poor health were made public, with mentions that she had been being fed rotten fish. 


March 4: The Miami Seaquarium announced Lolita will no longer be on public display or used for staged exhibition shows under a new license with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).