A large killer whale that has been held in captivity in a Florida aquarium for more than 50 years is being released.
Lolita, also know by her Native American name Tokitae, is being returned from the Miamai Seaquarium to an ocean habitat in the Pacific Northwest within two years.
Her plight was widely publicised in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which highlighted the captivity of orcas.
The decision to finally release the 2,268kg orca comes after the aquarium reached a deal with animal welfare advocates, including nonprofit Friends of Lolita.
The orca, aged 57, retired from performances last year when ownership of the aquarium changed hands.
She was captured aged about four years old in 1970 in a cove off Seattle. She spent decades performing for paying crowds before falling ill.
An orca believed to be her mother, called Ocean Sun, continues to swim free with other members of their clan, known as L pod, and is estimated to be more than 90 years old.
That has given advocates of her release optimism that Tokitae could still maybe have a long life in the wild.
“It’s a step toward restoring our natural environment, fixing what we’ve messed up with exploitation and development,” said Howard Garrett, president of the board of the advocacy group Orca Network, based on Washington state’s Whidbey Island.
“I think she’ll be excited and relieved to be home - it’s her old neighbourhood.”
The plan to return Lolita to her natural habitat requires federal approval, according to the Miami Herald. Her release could be 18 to 24 months away and the cost could reach $20 million (£16 million).
The plan is to transport Lolita by plane to an ocean sanctuary in the waters between Washington and Canada, where she will initially swim inside a large net while trainers and veterinarians teach her how to catch fish.
The orca would be under 24-hour care until she acclimates to her new surroundings.
The process to return Lolita to her “home waters” was years in the making, beginning with the transfer of the aquarium’s ownership to The Dolphin Co, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference.
The company later partnered with the nonprofit to provide medical care to the whale.
The Seaquarium’s previous owner, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc, phased out killer whale shows in 2016.
Lolita, once a top attraction at Seaquarium, was retired from shows in March 2022 after management changed hands.
“Finding a better future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium,” The Dolphin Co chief executive Eduardo Albor said.
Animal rights advocates for years fought unsuccessfully in court to obtain Lolita’s freedom after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration added orcas to the endangered species list in 2015.
Killer whales are highly social mammals that have no natural predators and can live up to 80 years.