World’s oldest captive orca Tokitae facing freedom after 50 years in captivity

Author: Maria Chiorando

Read Time:   |  7th April 2023

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Tokitae was one of six orca calves taken from their mothers from the wild and sold to marine parks more than 50 years ago - most didn't survive a year


The oldest captive orca may be freed after being separated from her mother as a calf 50 years ago, before being sold to a marine park.

Tokitae, also known as Lolita, was one of six babies captured in 1970, when some 80 whales were rounded up into a cove on Whidbey Island off Washington state.

Men using sticks, explosives, and nets, separated the calves from their families in an operation that has been described by residents who revealed the horror of the scene.

One local, who witnessed the abuse, talked about the screaming of the animals as they were forcibly separated from each other, saying they were ‘crying’, and describing the set up as ‘like a prison camp’.

According to reports, most of the six young taken failed to survive a year in captivity. Only one remains alive today – Tokitae. It is believed that her mother, who would now be 93, is still alive today.


Tokitae was sold to Miami Seaquarium, which reportedly has the smallest orca enclosure in North America, where she has lived for more than 50 years. She was forced to perform for crowds until her retirement last year.

Now, she may be able to return to the wild, after campaign group Friends of Lolita signed a deal with The Miami Seaquarium (which recently came under the management of The Dolphin Company, the most experienced company with marine mammals in the world).

Under the ‘formal and binding’ agreement, Pritam Singh, co-founder of Friends of Lolita will work with Eduardo Albor, CEO of The Dolphin Company to try and bring to life the dream of returning Tokitae to an ocean sanctuary.

Philanthropist Jim Irsay, the owner & CEO of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, has also played a major role in the project, via a generous contribution.

Tokitae pictured in 1973 at the Seaquarium in Miami, where she still remains in 2023. Image © Avalon via Getty Images

Tokitae pictured in 1973 at the Seaquarium in Miami, where she still remains in 2023. Image © Avalon via Getty Images

‘Making that dream happen’

Mr. Albor, CEO of The Dolphin Company, said: “It has always been our commitment at The Dolphin Company that we place the highest priority on the well-being of animals, above all else.

“Finding a better future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium. With the help of Jim Irsay and Pritam Singh, we are bringing that dream, the dream of returning Lolita to her home waters, closer than ever.

“I am excited to see that, regardless of different positions, we can make this extraordinary agreement happen based on mutual respect and confidence between all parties.

“Working with the same objective, many other organisations can achieve great things when both parties focus on common goals, rather than different views, and make feasible something that before was a hopeless dream by accepting each other as allies.

“We have the same goal and now the world will see, amazing things are possible when we listen and work together.”


‘Bringing her home’

Meanwhile, Jim Irsay, Owner and CEO of the Indianapolis Colts, said: “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.

Pritam Singh, co-founder of Friends of Lolita, added: “It is a sacred privilege to share in the mission of caring for and bringing home Lolita, our beloved one.

“My thanks to all the team, particularly Eduardo Albor, Jim Irsay and Raynell Morris, for all their efforts and support.”

According to Friends of Lolita, the team hopes relocation will be possible in the next 18 to 24 months. The whale is currently receiving ’round-the-clock care by a team of dedicated, highly-skilled, medical, nutrition and behaviour experts’, and a recent independent health and welfare assessment suggests her health is ‘reasonably stable’.

Tokitae’s freedom will require a cross country move. Amid the considerations ahead of the move, are whether her health will be able to tolerate the journey, as captivity has caused issues including skin conditions.

Additionally, her transportation is yet to receive approval from federal US agencies.

Have you been moved by Tokitae’s story and inspired to advocate for animals? Find out how to take activism beyond your diet

Featured image © Getty Images / Stringer

Written by

Maria Chiorando

Maria is an editor and journalist. Her work has been published by the Huffington Post, the Guardian, TechnoBuffalo, Plant Based News, and Kent on Sunday among other national and regional titles.

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