Lolita, the captive orca who performed at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years, died on Friday because of a suspected kidney issue.
For years, animal rights groups and the Lummi Nation of Washington had been pressuring the seaquarium to release the orca—also known as Tokitae or Toki—back into the ocean. Earlier this year, the facility’s leaders agreed and revealed plans to return Lolita to the waters of the Pacific Northwest sometime between October 2024 and April 2025.
But the 7,000-pound orca—who was believed to be around 57 years old—did not live long enough to see those plans come to fruition. The creature “started exhibiting serious signs of discomfort” last week, which veterinarians began treating “immediately and aggressively,” the Miami Seaquarium posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Despite the medical team’s best efforts, Lolita succumbed to “what is believed to be a renal condition,” per the post.
“Toki was an inspiration to all who had the fortune to hear her story and especially to the Lummi Nation that considered her family,” the post continues. “Those who have had the privilege to spend time with her will forever remember her beautiful spirit.”
Over the last two days, Toki started exhibiting serious signs of discomfort, which her full Miami Seaquarium and Friends of Toki medical team began treating immediately and aggressively. Despite receiving the best possible medical care, she passed away Friday afternoon... pic.twitter.com/hx79OhGn2O— Miami Seaquarium (@MiamiSeaquarium) August 18, 2023
The orca’s condition apparently took a turn for the worse with little warning. Three days before the animal’s death, the seaquarium posted on Facebook that Lolita was “very stable” and that she had a good appetite, which it called “proof of her good health.”
The seaquarium has revealed few details about what happened to Lolita in the days leading up to her death, but it said that “at her advanced age, her passing is not a complete surprise,” per the New York Times’ Jesus Jiménez.
In the wild, orcas have a lifespan of between 30 and 90 years, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). All orcas in United States waters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and one population—the Southern Resident group in the Pacific Ocean, which Lolita belonged to before being captured—is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Worldwide, scientists say they don’t have enough data to make a determination about the marine mammals’ status in the wild, per the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
At the time of her death, Lolita was living in a tank that measured 80 by 35 feet, which People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) described in a statement as the “smallest, bleakest orca tank in the world.” The nonprofit groups and Indigenous tribes working toward her release had hoped to build a sea pen off the coast of Washington, where she would have more freedom to roam around while continuing to receive medical care and food.
But as Douglas Hanks writes for the Miami Herald, that plan was “mostly aspirational,” as the groups would have needed to secure water rights and federal permits to build the pen. Even so, “she had hope,” as Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement, as reported by the Guardian’s Katharine Gammon.
“It is a sad irony that Tokitae died now,” Rose said in the statement. “Humans failed her.”
Farewell to Tokitae (Lolita), the last captive Southern Resident orca, who passed away after five decades at the Miami Seaquarium.— Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) (@whalesorg) August 19, 2023
Though she won't benefit from the plan to bring her home, Lolita's story remains a catalyst for change. Her life highlighted the challenges of… pic.twitter.com/mDvIiaCAFb
Lolita was only about 4 years old when humans captured her off the coast of Seattle in August 1970, per the Washington Post’s Andrew Jeong. She was the last surviving Southern Resident population orca from the capture era, as Lynda V. Mapes writes for the Seattle Times.
The Miami Seaquarium purchased and trained Lolita, who performed regularly until March 2022. Then, under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the seaquarium announced it would end shows featuring Lolita and a dolphin named Lii.
Now, Indigenous people of the Lummi Nation are pushing for Lolita’s remains to be returned to the Pacific Northwest, “so she can be put to rest in accordance with the Tribe’s traditions,” writes Sebastian Robertson for KING5.
Though Lolita died before she could “experience the freedom she deserved,” her story will live on, according to a statement from Save Lolita, a group that had been advocating for her release.
“We must remember that Lolita’s story is one of resilience and the enduring power of the human spirit to fight for justice,” per the statement. “Her journey brought international attention to the ethical concerns surrounding the captivity of marine animals and inspired a global movement for change.”