Returning orca Lolita to Northwest is risky

Returning orca Lolita to Northwest is risky

Returning orca Lolita to Northwest is risky

plan announced last week to return Lolita, a killer whale held captive for more than a half-century, to her home waters in Washington’s Puget Sound thrilled those who have long advocated for her to be freed from her tank at the Miami Seaquarium.

But it also called to mind the release of Keiko, the star of the movie “Free Willy,” more than two decades ago. Keiko's return to his native Iceland improved upon his life in a Mexico City tank, but he failed to adapt to the wild and died five years later.

He is the only orca released after long-term captivity. Some of Lolita's former caregivers are warning she could face a similar fate or that she might not survive a move across the country.

But advocates say there are big differences between the cases and that their experience with Keiko will inform how they plan for Lolita's return.

While they hope to bring Lolita, also known as Tokitae or Toki, to a whale sanctuary among the Pacific Northwest's many islands, they know she might never again swim freely with her endangered family, including the nearly century-old whale believed to be her mother.

Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest revere orcas, considering them their relatives.

Lolita, now 57, spent decades performing. Last year the Miami Seaquarium announced it would no longer feature her under an agreement with regulators.

The 2,267-kilogram animal lives in a tank 24 meters by 11 meters and 6 meters deep.

Plans call for bringing Lolita to a netted whale sanctuary of about 6 hectares. She would be released into an enclosure the size of a couple football fields within that sanctuary, where she would be under round-the-clock care.

“The first objective is to provide her the highest quality of life we can,” said Charles Vinick, a founder of the nonprofit Friends of Toki as well as executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project.

A group of some of Lolita's former caregivers called Truth 4 Toki announced an online petition on April 4 to keep her in Florida - perhaps at SeaWorld Orlando, where she can live alongside the two Pacific white-sided dolphins she has lived with for the past 30 years.

They describe her as a geriatric animal in poor health who has had trouble adjusting to changes as slight as introducing different music into her performance routine. They say the stress of the move could kill her, but if it doesn't, she could be susceptible to pollutants in Puget Sound.

“We tried this once with Keiko, and it was an epic failure," said Shanna Simpson, who trained Lolita from 2003-09. “This is rainbows and fluffy human feelings. It's going to wind up in Toki's death.”

When all the pieces are in place, which could take two years, and Lolita is deemed healthy enough to move, she would be put on a stretcher. She'd be lifted by crane into a tank placed on a truck, and the truck driven to a cargo plane.

She'd be flown to Washington, loaded onto a barge, floated to the sanctuary, and lowered by crane into her new home.

Toki's transportation tank would be filled with fresh water - salt water could ruin the plane in the event of a leak. Her caregivers would protect her skin with ointment.

Advocates will work with Washington's Department of Natural Resources to pick the sanctuary site.

There, Toki can begin recovering the strength she might need to rejoin wild orcas, to relearn to hunt and to travel around 100 miles (161 kilometers) per day, they say.

Malene Simon of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, who conducted a scientific review of Keiko's release, said she was pessimistic about Lolita's chances to learn to hunt after 52 years of being fed by humans.

Still, Tokitae has some potential advantages, advocates say. She was slightly older when she was captured, so she would have been already learning to hunt, and she might have more memory of her family songs. Further, researchers know who her family is, unlike with Keiko.

“It’ll be therapeutic for her, and she’ll get healthier,” said Howard Garrett, president of the board of the advocacy group Orca Network. “This is a step toward righting a great wrong that humans have done.”