After half a century in captivity, Tokitae the performing orca could finally go home

In 1970, six baby orcas were taken away from their moms and sold to marine parks. At the Miami Seaquarium, just one person is still alive.

On Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state, a group of men collected up more than 80 orcas fifty years ago. They used boats, bombs, nets, poles, and explosives to remove tiny orca calves from their moms. An report of the day claims that the whales' cries resembled those of humans and haunted the locals.

That day at Penn Cove, six newborn whales were removed and sold to marine parks. In captivity, most didn't make it through a year. Only the captured and sold individual is still alive.

That female whale performed for people until she retired earlier this year after spending the previous 52 years in a pool at the Miami Seaquarium, the smallest orca habitat in North America.

There is now a prospect that she will go home at last. Tokitae, the whale, is being fought to be returned to the Pacific Northwest where she may live out her days and potentially reunite with her family, according to activists. A pod of southern resident killer whales is being led by her mother, who is said to be in her 90s, while they search for salmon in the Salish Sea.

Her confinement is an anachronism, a link between a time when whales were traded for entertainment and the widespread disapproval of the practice now. Her release effort has drawn backers from all around the world and brought activists, Indigenous organizations, and benefactors together for a similar goal.

According to Charles Vinick of the Whale Sanctuary Project, which works to liberate captive whales all around the world, "We owe all these animals in captivity the chance to live in a setting as similar to their natural environment as we can possible give."

Vinick points out that whales like Toki have made their human owners millions of dollars and amused vast numbers of people. "We owe them a pension, a retirement scheme... The least we can do is give them something like this back.

But her potential release also raises important issues on how to mend the harm caused by earlier errors. Can an animal that has lived in captivity for such a long time be safely put back into its natural habitat? Where should she go if not?

The solutions could show her other whales how to proceed in different parts of the planet. According to the Whale Sanctuary Project, more than 3,000 whales and dolphins are still kept in captivity worldwide, including 60 orcas and more than 300 beluga whales in marine parks and aquariums.

Despite all odds, she is still alive.

For 48 years of her life, Tokitae, whose stage name is Lolita, appeared in plays while leaping, flipping, and lifting sneakers into the air.

She lived in a tank with another killer whale named Hugo for ten years, but he passed away in 1980 from a brain aneurysm after repeatedly smashing his head on the glass walls of the cage.

The second-oldest killer whale in captivity, Tokitae (also known as Toki), has seen ups and downs in her health. Recent independent evaluations, for instance, detailed the effects of an acute sickness that made her unwell earlier this year.

Despite these problems, scientists note that she has maintained unusually good health given the length of her confinement. Her release was first contemplated in 1995 by Whidbey Island's Orca Network activist and whale researcher Howard Garrett.

Every day, she is a miracle, adds Garrett. "She is still alive, which is against all chances. Her mental health, in my opinion, is what maintains her physical health.

He cites films that demonstrate Toki exercising by herself in the water and running laps without any trainers nearby. He claims that she exhibits none of the stereotypical signs of brain damage brought on by being held captive, such as withdrawal or neurosis. She can be an extreme anomaly in terms of maintaining her health.

The pursuit of Toki's release has lasted for many years, but in recent years, the urgency has increased.

The Endangered Species Act's protection of southern resident orcas, which was expressly extended to Toki in 2015 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, gave campaigners a boost in 2005. The Miami Seaquarium cut costs and failed to provide Toki with sufficient care, according to a study published by the USDA in 2021. Examples include providing Toki with rotting fish, which caused stomach problems, and contaminated water in her tank.

In 2021, the Seaquarium was sold to a new owner who was more receptive to conversations concerning Toki's release, and philanthropist Pritam Singh established the Friends of Lolita charity to strive toward Lolita's ultimate release. Together with Friends of Lolita and Toki's owners, The Dolphin Company, Vinick's group is now addressing the matter with Toki (which is the company licensed to operate the Seaquarium).

Garrett is certain that she can be returned to the Pacific; he claims there hasn't been any injury to whales during transportation in the past 50 years, and she could still travel for 10 hours in a cozy stretcher draped with fleece from Miami to a cool location in the San Juan Islands.

If she were released, it would be an unusual circumstance. Only a few other whales have survived in captivity. In the 1990s, Keiko, who played Willy in the Free Willy films, underwent rehabilitation in an Oregon sea pen before relocating to Iceland and spending a further five years in the wild. He was much younger than Toki when he was freed from captivity—just 22 years old.

Indigenous groups have also participated, particularly the Lummi Nation in Washington State. She was given the name Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut by the Lummi in 2019, indicating that she is a member of the Sk'aliCh'elh family of resident orcas that live in the Salish Sea.

According to Raynell Morris, a member of the Lummi tribe and member of the board of the charitable organization Friends of Lolita, which is a division of Sacred Lands Conservancy, "We regard the southern resident killer whales to be our family that dwell under the waves." "We have loved and revered them for all of time."

Morris asserts a parallel between Toki's narrative and the experience of Indigenous peoples with forced relocation: "It's the connection to how our Indian children were hauled away to boarding schools without consent and they were deprived of language, culture, and family. Many of the kids also never went back home. She has to be taken care of and sent home.

No easy answer exists.

There is currently no clear plan in place for Toki's future; nevertheless, even if she were to return to the Salish Sea, she would require a lot of room and maybe food for the remainder of her life. She could wind up in a netted cage operated by the Whale Sanctuary Project, a 100-acre (40 hectares) region in Nova Scotia where they aim to bring others, using the design for land-based sanctuaries for big cats, elephants, and giant apes.

Another concern is health, not just her own but also others', should she come into contact with her pod. Experts are concerned that Toki's infections—which she acquired in captivity—could infect other southern resident killer whales, a population that is already critically endangered and only has 74 members.

Of course, others worry that given her advanced age, she won't make it. If she did, there are worries about the strain a mature whale might experience in a new, natural habitat.

These are really challenging ethical and medical considerations, he claims. “Ethically? Yeah, bring her home. That's a far more challenging decision, though, when her life is on the line.

Vinick, on the other hand, highlights her prolonged existence in one of the tiniest aquariums on earth. Vinick remarks, "She is one tough whale."

In 1996, a researcher recorded Toki's family reuniting in the San Juan Islands, and reporters played the video to her at the Miami Seaquarium. She appeared to still recall her former life with her family. Although it's unclear if she could still speak to her family, she seemed to recognize the calls.

Although there are no simple solutions for Toki's issue because it is unprecedented, her supporters won't give up looking for them.

"How do you assess those dangers when dealing with an endangered species? Do you ever take chances? Do you run the danger of losing her life? Vinick enquires. We are addressing such concerns, I believe for the first time in her life.

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