Trainer Marcia Hinton pets Lolita, a captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, March 9, 1995. An unlikely coalition made up of a theme park owner, an animal rights group, a mayor and a philanthropist who owns an NFL team announced Thursday, March 30, 2023, that a plan is in place to return Lolita — an orca that has lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years — to its home waters in the Pacific Northwest. (Nuri Vallbona / Miami Herald)

How to release a long-captive orca?

An ambitious plan was announced last week to return a killer whale long held captive to her home.

SEATTLE — An ambitious 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 vastly 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.

Here’s a look at Tokitae’s story.

How did Toki wind up in captivity?

Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest revere orcas. White settlers had a different view.

Fishermen reviled the “blackfish” as competition for salmon and sometimes shot them.

That began to change in 1965, when a man named Ted Griffin bought a killer whale that had been caught in a fisherman’s net in British Columbia and towed it to the Seattle waterfront. The whale — Namu — became a sensation.

Namu soon died from an infection, but Griffin had set off a craze for capturing the Pacific Northwest’s killer whales and training them to perform, as The Seattle Times recounted in a 2018 history. Griffin corralled dozens of orcas off Washington’s Whidbey Island in 1970. Several got caught and drowned when opponents cut the nets, intending to free them.

Many orcas remained nearby, declining to leave as their clan members were hauled out of the water. Among those kept was 4-year-old Tokitae, later sold to the Miami Seaquarium.

By the early 1970s, at least 13 Northwest orcas had been killed and 45 delivered to theme parks around the world; Toki is the only one still alive. The roundups reduced the Puget Sound resident population by about 40% and helped cause problems with inbreeding that imperil them today.

Outrage over the captures helped prompt the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Keiko, the star of the movie “Free Willy,” swims in his new sea pen at Heimaey, Iceland, on Sept. 11, 1998. An ambitious plan announced last week to return 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, who failed to adapt to the wild after being returned to his native Iceland and died five years later. (AP Photo / Don Ryan)

Keiko, the star of the movie “Free Willy,” swims in his new sea pen at Heimaey, Iceland, on Sept. 11, 1998. An ambitious plan announced last week to return 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, who failed to adapt to the wild after being returned to his native Iceland and died five years later. (AP Photo / Don Ryan)

Why bring Toki home?

Lolita, now 57, spent decades performing. Last year the Miami Seaquarium announced it would no longer feature her under an agreement with regulators. The 5,000-pound animal lives in a tank 80 feet by 35 feet and 20 feet deep.

Whales are intelligent, social creatures, and activists have long dreamed of returning Tokitae to her family.

The whale believed to be Toki’s mother is the matriarch of L-pod, one of three clans that make up the so-called southern resident killer whales, a genetically and socially distinct population that frequents the Salish Sea between Washington and British Columbia. There are 73 southern residents remaining.

Plans call for bringing Lolita to a netted whale sanctuary of about 15 acres. 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. “Whether or not it becomes the dream of having her reunite with L-pod is something we have to rely on Lolita to show us.”

Because the southern residents are endangered, advocates would have to obtain additional permits if they ever wanted to return Toki fully to the wild. Advocates would likely have to show that introducing another aging whale to feed wouldn’t burden the population further.

With financial backing from Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, they have agreed to support Lolita long term, whether she’s reintroduced or not.

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

“I am certain this is NOT in her best interest,” one of her former trainers, Alli Hagan, said in a news release announcing the petition. “Moving her across the country to a seapen is a dangerous and unnecessary.”

But for Raynell Morris, an elder of the Lummi Indian Tribe in Washington and a board member of Friends of Toki, the whale’s return is fundamental.

“Until she’s returned to her family, our family is broken,” Morris said. “When she comes home, the web of life will be repaired and restored, and our people will be repaired and restored.”

How do you move a 2.5-ton whale?

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

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

Toki’s transportation tank will be filled with fresh water — salt water could ruin the plane in the event of a leak. Her caregivers will 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 per day.

Karen McRea feeds frozen fish to Keiko, star of the movie “Free Willy,” in his pen off the coast of Westman Islands, Iceland, on April 22, 1999. An ambitious plan announced last week to return 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, who failed to adapt to the wild after being returned to his native Iceland and died five years later. (AP Photo / Kristin Gazlay(

Karen McRea feeds frozen fish to Keiko, star of the movie “Free Willy,” in his pen off the coast of Westman Islands, Iceland, on April 22, 1999. An ambitious plan announced last week to return 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, who failed to adapt to the wild after being returned to his native Iceland and died five years later. (AP Photo / Kristin Gazlay(

What did we learn from Keiko?

Keiko was about 2 when he was captured in 1979. He spent time in Iceland and Canada before being sold in 1985 to a theme park in Mexico City, where he lived in a tank filled with tap water mixed with salt.

In 1993 he was featured in “Free Willy,” prompting a campaign by schoolchildren to get him released. A facility was built at the Oregon Coast Aquarium where the emaciated Keiko could recover before his return to Iceland.

Keiko gained about 1,000 pounds in his first year in Oregon.

Vinick, who helped manage Keiko’s return, noted that it was always designed as a reintroduction effort. Keiko was in his early 20s — still young for an orca — when he was brought to Iceland in 1998. To teach him to hunt, trainers would launch fish around his pen with a sling shot. Eventually they began escorting him on longer swims in the open ocean.

While Keiko would approach wild orcas at times, he would return to his trainers’ boat and generally sought out humans. He swam to Norway on his own — a journey of nearly 1,000 miles. But there again he was attracted to boats and people, and he died, apparently of pneumonia, at about age 27.

“We already knew how easy it is to capture whales,” Vinick said. “What we learned with Keiko is how difficult it is to put one back.”

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 advantages. 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.”

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