Li’i, the Pacific white-sided dolphin who was Lolita’s companion at Miami Seaquarium, was moved Sunday night to SeaWorld of San Antonio, where he will be reunited with two offspring, former companion Piquet and three other members of his species.
The 200-pound Li’i, considered an elderly dolphin at his estimated age of 40, was transported in a container filled with cold water on a chartered Boeing 767 and accompanied by two veterinarians and a trainer.
“Li’i’s trip was a success,” said Dr. Christopher Dold, SeaWorld’s chief zoological officer. “He’s an older dolphin who has never moved before but he was very calm throughout the flight. We placed him in the water here early this morning and he is alert and interactive. He can see the other animals he will soon be living with.”
Once Li’i is oriented to his new home in Texas, he will be moved into one of SeaWorld’s largest habitats, a 2.5-million gallon pool, which he will share with Beluga whales and the other six Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Li’i, captured off the coast of California in 1983, had been living in the Whale Bowl tank with Lolita, the orca whale.
Lolita, also known by her Native American name of Tokitae and nickname of Toki, died Aug. 18 at age 57 after spending 53 years as the star attraction at Seaquarium, which cited kidney failure as the cause of death.
“Our main aim was to provide the best welfare for Li’i at a place where he could live with other dolphins of his species,” said Dr. Guillermo Sanchez, chief veterinary officer for The Dolphin Company, which owns Seaquarium and 29 other facilities throughout the world. “As soon as Toki died, we started immediately to plan Li’i’s future. San Antonio has a lot of experience with geriatric animals.”
After undergoing several mock moves at Seaquarium in the cold-water container, Li’i’s flight departed Miami at 10 p.m. Sunday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries division approved the transfer. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) endorsed it.
“Once again, the compassionate professionals at SeaWorld have stepped up to provide a home and sanctuary for an animal in need, accepting the call to help the last remaining Pacific white-sided dolphin at Miami Seaquarium,” said AZA President and CEO Dan Ashe. “Safely translocating animals, between zoological facilities or for reintroductions into the wild, is standard practice among zoos, and SeaWorld is a leader among leaders. The Dolphin Company, which currently manages four AZA-accredited facilities, is committed to improving the facilities and standards of care at Miami Seaquarium. AZA hopes to continue working with them toward that goal.”
PETA criticizes move; Seaquarium says it’s best for dolphin
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) criticized the dolphin’s move to SeaWorld, saying a sea sanctuary would have been a better destination. Before Lolita died, Seaquarium was considering moving Li’i with Lolita to a sea pen in Lolita’s Pacific Northwest native waters.
But Seaquarium determined, in collaboration with the San Antonio marine park, that SeaWorld was a safer place for Li’i, who is nearing the end of his lifespan and has been in captivity and dependent on humans for nearly 40 years.
“By violating its promise to send Li’i to a seaside sanctuary and condemning him to spend the rest of his life in yet another concrete cell, the Miami Seaquarium has failed this long-suffering dolphin, just as it failed Lolita,” said PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman. “Li’i deserves the chance to return to his ocean home, to explore, dive, and finally feel some sense of freedom after years spent in a chlorinated concrete tank. PETA urges the Seaquarium to give him the peaceful oceanic retirement he is owed and send him to a seaside sanctuary.”
Seaquarium moved its other Pacific white-sided dolphins, Elelo and Loke — a mother-and-son pair — to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium on Aug. 3. Shedd and SeaWorld San Antonio are the only marine parks in the United States caring for the species.
“I’m confident this is the best decision for Li’i,” said Sanchez, who added that a SeaWorld trainer came to Seaquarium before the move and one of Li’i’s Seaquarium trainers went to San Antonio to help with the transition. “Li’i is an amazing animal and patient. He is super friendly and active. Ice is his favorite treat. He has a dynamic vocal repertoire and he was vocalizing during the flight.”
Lolita, or Tokitae, was being prepared for a possible cross country transfer to a sea pen off the coast of Washington when she died. For decades, activists and members of the Lummi Nation had protested Lolita’s living conditions and called for the orca to be moved out of her Seaquarium tank.
An elaborate plan, expected to cost $15-20 million, was taking shape with the nonprofit Friends of Toki leading the fundraising effort. A group of former trainers and vets said such a radical relocation would be too stressful for the elderly killer whale and advocated that Toki be moved to a larger tank at SeaWorld Orlando, which has orca experts on staff.
Seaquarium is awaiting the results of Lolita’s necropsy, which was performed at the University of Georgia.
“Samples were sent from the university to labs and we expect to receive the results soon,” Sanchez said.
Seaquarium to renew accreditation
Sanchez also confirmed that Seaquarium will renew its accreditation with the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA), which expired last month when Seaquarium trainers “needed to focus on Toki and Li’i and we decided to pause the application process,” he said.
To reinstate its certificate, Seaquarium must undergo “a comprehensive on-site audit with IMATA inspectors,” IMATA said.
“Miami Seaquarium earned accreditation from IMATA in 2018 for its program to ensure the professional development of its zoological staff,” said IMATA spokesman Michael Hunter. “This accreditation, valid for a five-year term, signified Miami Seaquarium’s commitment to upholding the highest standards of positive reinforcement training, safety, and professional excellence.”
Seaquarium is accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) and the American Humane Society.