Lolita, an orca at the Miami Seaquarium that had entertained guests for more than 50 years before the park bowed to public pressure and planned to release it into the ocean, died on Friday.
The orca, also known as Tokitae and Toki, had shown “serious signs of discomfort” over the past two days before she died of what was believed to be a renal issue, the Miami Seaquarium said in a post on Facebook.
“Toki was an inspiration to all who had the fortune to hear her story and especially to the Lummi nation that considered her family,” the Seaquarium said. “Those of us who have had the honor and privilege to spend time with her will forever remember her beautiful spirit.”
Under pressure from animal advocates who protested against the Seaquarium, officials there announced in February that it was preparing to return Lolita to the ocean. The Dolphin Company, which owns the aquatic park, said in March that relocating Lolita would happen in about 18 to 24 months.
Aquariums and theme parks with killer whales have been a source of controversy over the years, with advocates and regulators raising concerns about how marine mammals are treated in captivity. Such criticism prompted SeaWorld in 2016 to stop breeding killer whales.
In an update on Tuesday, the Seaquarium said that Lolita was “very stable and as good as she can be at 50 years of age.”
A sign of her good health, the Seaquarium said, was that she had a good appetite, eating several pounds of salmon, herring and squid. Lolita was being cared for by a team of veterinarians, who monitored her physical and mental health, the Seaquarium said on Tuesday.
It was unclear on Friday how Lolita’s condition deteriorated this week after the positive update from the Seaquarium. The Miami Seaquarium and The Dolphin Company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday evening.
Eduardo Albor, chief executive of The Dolphin Company, said in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that “not a single effort we made to give Lolita an opportunity was a waste of time & money.”
“My heart is truly broken,” Mr. Albor wrote. “Lolita captured me since 1st day. Love at first sight.”
Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts owner who was involved in efforts to bring the whale to the Seattle area, said in a statement on Friday that Toki’s “story captured my heart, just as it did millions of others.”
“I was honored to be part of the team working to return her to her indigenous home, and I take solace in knowing that we significantly improved her living conditions this past year,” Mr. Irsay said. “Her spirit and grace have touched so many.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a statement that Lolita had been kept in “the smallest, bleakest orca tank in the world, deprived of any semblance of a natural life” and had displayed “repetitive and abnormal behavior,” indicating “severe psychological trauma.”
The Seaquarium said in March that Lolita had stopped performing in 2022 as her health declined. The whale was about 20 feet long and 7,000 pounds, and was living in a 80-foot-long and 35-foot-wide tank that was no longer being exhibited.
Killer whales can live with their birth families for their entire lives. Matriarchs can live to 80 or 90 years old.