A beloved orca known for his breathtaking tricks has died after surviving decades of captivity in the smallest tank of its kind.
Officials confirmed Friday that Lolita, who has been at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970, died of kidney disease at the age of 57 just as plans for her release were being finalized.
The killer whale, also dubbed the Tokitae by activists campaigning for its release, was a superstar attraction in Florida, with tourists traveling across the country for it.
After performing tricks for 53 years despite public outcry after her release, it was announced in March that she was retiring.
Park officials began training them for their release after plans were made to return them home to Washington state, but the orca began showing extreme signs of discomfort.
Medical teams aggressively treated her condition, which appeared to be pneumonia, until she finally succumbed to kidney disease this week.
“Toki was an inspiration to all who were fortunate enough to hear her story, and particularly to the Lummi nation who viewed her family,” read a statement from the Seaquarium, referring to the indigenous people living near their homeland related
“Those who have had the privilege of spending time with her will forever remember her wonderful spirit.”
The release plan was drafted by the non-profit organization Friends of Toki, which has been campaigning for the animal’s release for years.
Toki was one of six calves rounded up by fishermen and sold to marine parks in 1970. diving magazine reports.
Most calves died within the first year of captivity, but Toki defied expectations and, despite a busy schedule, continued to live.
She performed tricks in front of audiences three times a day and lived in an 80-foot-long and 35-foot-wide tank, the smallest of its kind in the United States.
Just ten years after Toki arrived at the aquarium, her companion Hugo died from an aneurysm caused by repeated head injuries, earning her the title of the world’s loneliest whale.
While animal rights activists lobbied for her release, other environmental experts questioned her ability to live successfully in the wild after her life in the aquarium.
A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said after the move was announced that it could pose a threat to existing populations in Washington waters.
“If she’s healthy enough to be transported, the problem is with her abilities,” said Raquel Regalado, Miami-Dade Commissioner, who advocated for improvements at the Miami Seaquarium.
“She doesn’t know how to catch or hunt. We’re not really sure if she can communicate with other whales because she was alone.”
Their move was estimated to cost $20 million and was to be funded by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.
“I know that Lolita wants open waters. I don’t care what anyone says,” Irsay said before her death.
“She lived long enough to get this opportunity. And my only mission is to help this whale get free.”