It’s official: Agreement in place to bring Tokitae home from Miami Seaquarium to Puget Sound

It’s official: An agreement is in place to bring Tokitae, a Southern Resident killer whale also known as Lolita, home to the Pacific Northwest after she was forcefully removed from a cove near Whidbey Island more than 50 years ago.

The movement, once thought impossible, could happen within 18 to 24 months.

Full details of a plan have not yet been released, though one speaker at today’s event mentioned the need to use a C-17 aircraft – what is traditionally considered a military transport plane.

Tokitae has spent 52 years in a small pool in the Miami Seaquarium. For decades people have been trying to bring her back to her ancestral waters – Lummi elders, activists and marine biologists have spent decades trying to negotiate her release.

A whirlwind of events made today’s announcement possible. The previous owners of the Miami Seaquarium long stated that moving Tokitae was unrealistic. A lot changed in a few years: she retired from performing, the Dolphin Company stepped in and bought the facility, and a health scare opened the door for a nonprofit known as ‘Friends of Lolita’ to step-in and help with her care.

"I, too, have been invested both personally and professionally in her care," said Miami-Dade county Mayor Danielle Levine Cava at a hotel rented out for the big announcement.

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The audience at the Miami Seaquarium watching Lolita the killer whale at its 40th anniversary performance. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The cost to move Lolita will be monumental, initial estimates state it could be $15 million to $20 million. Any plan would also have to be approved by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

That cost would likely be backed by a number of large financial backers including Pritam Singh, co-founder of Friends of Lolita and NFL owner Jim Irsay – a new name that emerged this week in this decades-long saga.

Irsay joined elected officials and nonprofit leaders on Tuesday, saying: "The story of Lolita the orca has been near and dear to my heart. I am proud – and enthusiastic – to play a role in finally returning Lolita to her native Pacific Northwest."

A detailed plan has not yet been released, though member of Friends of Lolita tell FOX 13 that a playbook has long been in development to make this move a reality.

Sacred Sea, run by Ellie Kinley and Raynell Morris – Lummi tribal members – have been raising funds for years to construct an open sea pen that would allow Tokitae to swim in her natural waters, while still getting regular care.

The announcement comes at an interesting time, earlier this month a NOAA backed study showed that the Southern Resident killer whales are struggling; in part, because of inbreeding. Before capturing orcas was outlawed roughly one-third of the Southern Residents were either removed or culled from the Salish Sea.

Those removals caused less genetic diversity within the population – exacerbating the issues scientists have long noted harm the Southern Residents: a lack of food, shipping vessel noise and pollution.

It’s unclear whether Tokitae will ever be able to re-connect with her extended family in L-pod, one of three groupings within the Southern Resident population. There are 32 member of the L-pod members that are alive – including an 89-year-old orca that some have claimed is Tokitae’s mother. Tokitae, herself, is now 57-years-old.

This is a developing story, more details will be published throughout the day.

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).