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More than 50 years after her capture, the Miami Seaquarium‘s Lolita, one of the oldest killer whales in captivity, will be returned to her home waters in the Pacific.

Plans are underway to move Lolita, also known as Toki, to an ocean sanctuary in Washington state.

At a news conference Thursday, it was announced that the Seaquarium is hoping the relocation will happen in the next 18 to 24 months.

“This is a very special day,” said Eduardo Albor, CEO of the Dolphin Company, the parent company of the Seaquarium.

The Seaquarium has signed an agreement with the non-profit group Friends of Lolita to relocate the orca, with assistance from philanthropist and owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts Jim Irsay.

“I’m excited about being part of Lolita’s journey,” Irsay said. “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved whales, just loved whales because the power, the greatness of them and how gentle they are.”

Irsay said the cost to move Lolita could reach eight figures, but said they haven’t tied a budget to the relocation.

The plan is to build an ocean sanctuary with netting, where Lolita will receive constant care from trainers, Irsay said.

The cross-country move will likely be done by plane, possibly a massive military C-17, Irsay added.

“So many have worked, prayed and hoped for this result for many many years,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

The audience at the Miami Seaquarium watching Lolita the killer whale at its 40th anniversary performance. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Lolita was taken from the waters of Washington state in 1970 when she was about four years old. She’s estimated to be around 57 now, and is one of the oldest killer whales in captivity.

The now 7,000-pound orca was sold to the Seaquarium not long after her capture.

After decades of performances, Lolita fell ill in recent years, and last year, the Seaquarium’s company announced Lolita would no longer be exhibited in the whale stadium.

An independent assessment from two world-renowned veterinarians released last June found that Lolita’s condition had improved.

Irsay said Lolita’s mother is believed to be 89 years old and still living in Pacific waters with a whale pod.

“I know Lolita wants to get to free waters,” he said. “She’s lived this long to have this opportunity.”

Puget Sound orcas were put on the endangered species list in 2005, but captive animals were excluded from protection.

For years, animal rights activists have said Lolita should be moved back to her home pod in Puget Sound, saying her pool at the Seaquarium is much too small.

But the park has said previously that Lolita’s habitat exceeds the minimum requirements established by the Animal Welfare Act regulations.

And experts have said in some cases it’s safer to keep the endangered animal in captivity, and have said the release of a captive animal into the wild may injure or kill that animal as well as pose a danger for wild populations of the same species.

Nevertheless, groups like PETA celebrated the news of Lolita’s relocation.

“It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but Jim Irsay shows it can be done,” PETA said in a statement. “May anyone with the resources to do good things like this open their heart as he has done, find a way to reduce suffering, and bring happiness to others, regardless of their race, color, gender, or species.”

The average span of life of an orca is about 46 years for a female in the wild, so Lolita has exceeded that by more than a decade.

“She’s a transformative being and I think she has the capacity to be a transformative message,” Friends of Lolita co-founder Pritam Singh said. “She’s persevered the difficulties which we human beings enforced on her.”

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