‘Unheard of’: The plan to bring Lolita the orca, captive for 50 years, back to Puget Sound

Click to play video: 'Florida aquarium plans to relocate Lolita the orca after 50+ years in captivity'
Florida aquarium plans to relocate Lolita the orca after 50+ years in captivity
WATCH: After five decades in captivity in a Florida aquarium, 'Lolita' the orca could be coming home to the waters of the Pacific Northwest. But while animal activists are hailing the decision, one B.C. orca expert says we shouldn't be celebrating quite yet. Paul Johnson reports. – Mar 30, 2023

Lolita the orca, the second-oldest orca in captivity, is set to be returned to her home waters of Puget Sound.

As a four-year-old calf, she was captured and has spent 53 years at the Miami Seaquarium.

“It’s a big step for humans to realize that, you know, what we’ve done in the past can be corrected,” said Josh McInnes, a marine ecologist and marine mammal researcher at the University of British Columbia.

“In a way, we can kind of make up for some of this negative scope of humans that we’ve had over the decades with killer whales.”

It is expected it will take 18 to 24 months to relocate Lolita, who is also known as Tokitae or Toki, from the Miami facility back to the northwestern coast of the U.S.

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“It also kind of concerned me, though, on the other end, because this is an animal that’s been in captivity for so long, and being in captivity for that long, we really don’t know how it’s going to adjust when we get it into the water,” McInnes said.

“No matter how long you’ve studied a population, we really don’t really have the sample size of how many killer whales have ever been put back in the ocean that have been in captivity for 50 years. Zero. So I feel like it’s going to be an interesting situation.”

There have been a few orca rehabilitation attempts over the years, some more successful than others.

It has been more than 20 years since teams from British Columbia and Washington State worked together to rescue the orphaned orca named Springer.

Springer is now thriving with two calves of her own — Spirit, born in 2013, and Storm, born in 2017 — but it was a rough start for the whale.

In 2002, she was spotted alone and emaciated in Puget Sound.

Experts were called in and, after several months of monitoring her deteriorating condition, Springer was transported from Puget Sound in June of that year and taken by jet catamaran to the north end of Vancouver Island. She was then placed into a net pen at a research station, where she was rehabilitated.

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She was released in the area when her pod made contact and although not immediately, Springer was eventually re-adopted by her family.

Click to play video: 'Orphaned orca Springer becomes a mother for the first time'
Orphaned orca Springer becomes a mother for the first time

Keiko was captured near Iceland in 1979, portrayed Willy in the 1993 film Free Willy and three years later, plans were made to release him back into the wild.

However, he failed to make contact with any orcas and died off the coast of Norway in 2003 at the age of 27.

Luna was also born in Puget Sound in 1999. He was separated from his mother and spent five years in Nootka Sound where he came into contact with humans.

In June 2004, authorities tried to return Luna to his pod, L-pod, but he was accidentally killed by a ship strike in March 2006 in Nootka Sound.

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McInnes said Keiko is really the only orca whose journey experts can examine in how Lolita may adapt to the wild again.

“Lolita has a lot longer in captivity than Keiko was,” he said. “So this is going to be unheard of. This has not happened before.”

Click to play video: 'Orca inbreeding threatens Southern Resident killer whale survival'
Orca inbreeding threatens Southern Resident killer whale survival

He said the biggest challenge will be getting Lolita from Florida to the Salish Sea and then making sure she is comfortable enough to try and start feeding on her own.

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McInnes added the process will be similar to what experts did with Keiko.

“They had an outdoor area that was boomed in with a net, potentially in the habitat,” he said. “I’ve heard areas around the San Juan Islands in Washington State as being an area where they potentially might put her. That all really depends. But it’s a good scenario.”

If Lolita is able to hunt and feed herself, the next challenge will be trying to introduce her back into her pod, L-pod.

It is one of the pods that makes up the southern resident killer whale population.

Fewer than 80 southern resident killer whales remain in the wild.

However, last week, it was revealed that high levels of inbreeding among the endangered southern resident killer whale are likely contributing to its low population growth.

A study published last week in the peer-reviewed Nature Ecology & Evolution journal found that the species had the lowest genetic variation and most genetic inbreeding of five killer whale populations analyzed.

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Click to play video: 'Wildlife photographer captures incredible image of orca'
Wildlife photographer captures incredible image of orca


“Killer whales are very interesting as a species,” McInnes said. “They’re culturally unique. They have their own cultures. Behaviorally they have their own dialects and the way they communicate with others and they’re in their own pods and groups and communities.”

He said Keiko had not learned any Icelandic killer whale calls or language for years and while he did try to interact with some other whales, he was not successful and returned to interacting with humans again.

“We really don’t know the reaction of how this will go because we’ve never really seen it before,” McInnes added, speaking of Lolita.

While some of Lolita’s relatives may still be with L-pod, McInnes said it’s best to take it one move at a time.

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“I think that the first step is getting her situated and who knows if she’ll end up living the rest of her life just in a pen in the wilds or if she’s successfully released with her pod,” he said.

“I think it’s a great move for humans and for us to try to learn about how killer whales may react with being released and also with the southern residents, trying to give back to an animal that spent a lot of time in captivity. On the other side, though, there is concern she is an old whale that’s been in captivity for a long time. But either way, I think it’s it’s going to be a learning process.”

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