Lolita, the World’s Loneliest Orca, Gets Endangered Species Protection

But the killer whale isn’t leaving the Miami Seaquarium for her native Puget Sound anytime soon.

Lolita the killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium on Jan. 21. (Photo: Andrew Innerarity/Reuters)

Feb 4, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Federal officials on Wednesday granted a long-captive killer whale the same status her wild kin have under the Endangered Species Act.

But for now, Lolita, the Florida-held orca, won’t be changing addresses as a result.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined that Lolita, a killer whale living since 1970 at the Miami Seaquarium, shares the established federal status of the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest coast.

But the change in status doesn’t compel the Miami Seaquarium to get her a bigger pool, return her to the wild, or do much of anything else so far, according to NOAA officials.

Lolita was captured as a calf in waters off Washington state that are home to the Southern Resident population. That, along with Lolita’s genetic links to the region’s wild whales, factored strongly into the agency’s decision, officials said. The move closes a loophole that excluded wild-caught captive killer whales from the Southern Resident population from federal endangered species protections.

Since Lolita is the last Southern Resident killer whale still in captivity, and it’s long been illegal to remove them from the wild, this change won’t have big ramifications for other whales.

But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which in 2013 petitioned NOAA to give Lolita endangered status, believes her change of status forms a foundation for further legal action on her behalf.

“We believe her current situation, being held in a tiny tank with no other members of her species or even shade from the sun, violates the Endangered Species Act,” said Jared Goodman, director of animal law at PETA. “Her listing means that she’s now protected from harm and harassment, [and] we intend to be sure that those protections are enforced.”

Activists have campaigned for decades to improve Lolita’s living conditions or move her back to her native waters. Recent aerial footage showed her careening around her tank, her sharp turns driving home just how inadequate the space is for a 22-foot-long whale.

But setting her free is a complicated matter, said federal officials.

“Imagine you’ve been in captivity in a tightly managed environment, fed by humans, for the last 40 to 45 years,” Will Stelle, the West Coast regional administrator for NOAA’s fisheries division, said at a press conference Wednesday. “Are you ready to be released into the wild and fend for yourself?”

The agency’s priority remains the survival of the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales in the wild, Stelle said. Returning Lolita to the wild could expose that population to diseases or stresses that could undercut their survival. Only about 77 of the orcas remain.

PETA does not advocate releasing Lolita into the wild, Goodman said, “without knowing if that is in her best interests, or in the best interests of the species. The ultimate goal is for Lolita to be retired to a coastal sanctuary in her home waters, where she can feel the ocean currents and interact with other whales swimming by.”