The "world's loneliest orca" may see freedom soon.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ruled this week that Lolita, a wild-caught whale originally belonging to the Southern Resident killer whale population off the coast of Washington state, could be included with her relatives for classification as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The milestone ruling could lead to her removal from the smallest whale tank in North America, at the Miami Seaquarium, where she has spent the past 44 years.
A statement posted Wednesday by NOAA reads:
As presented in the proposed rule we find that Lolita's captive status, in and of itself, does not preclude her listing under the ESA. Accordingly, we are removing the exclusion for captive whales in the regulatory language describing the Southern Resident killer whale DPS [distinct population segment]. The best available genetic information and sighting history of killer whales supports recognizing Lolita as a member of the Southern Resident killer whale population and, as such, is not excluded from the listed Southern Resident killer whale DPS.
It's not yet clear whether the ruling will lead to Lolita's retirement to a seaside sanctuary or to her eventual release. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Dodo that it's too early to predict where she will end up.
"I do believe that eventually Lolita will have to be moved," she said. "I think any court cases will find that her current circumstances are a 'take' under the ESA [Endangered Species Act] and the Miami Seaquarium will have to apply for a permit to keep her – and I doubt it will be granted, meaning Lolita will have to go somewhere else."
The NOAA ruling notes that the "issues surrounding any release of Lolita to the wild are numerous and complex," and that animals in captivity for long periods of time become dependent on human care.
But animal advocates hope that she will at least be moved to a more natural setting where she can live out her life in peace - a welcome change from 20-foot-deep tank that the 7,000-pound whale has been living in for decades.