‘The first step in healing,’ Lummi say of push to return captured orca to the Salish Sea
A local Indigenous rights nonprofit is trying to reclaim a southern resident orca whale that was taken from the Puget Sound five decades ago.
Lolita, also known as Tokitae, was formerly an attraction at the Miami Seaquarium and resides in Florida. In March, Tokitae, 56, stopped performing shows due to advanced age, and the nonprofit Sacred Sea wants to begin the process of transitioning the whale into more native waters.
“45 years of performing was enough. She needed to retire. She needed to come back home to the Salish Sea because we believe her mother’s still swimming with the southern residents,” Ellie Kinley, Lummi tribal fisher and president of Sacred Sea, told KIRO Newsradio’s Dave Ross.
“She was like three or four years old when she was separated from her mother [with] a pen, and then she made that long trip to Miami, was put in the world’s tiniest orca tank. They gave her the show name Lolita. Once we heard of the story, we knew that the thing to do was to bring her home.”
A transfer would require a permit under the Endangered Species Act. Neither the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nor the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife is aware of any current application to return Tokitae to the Puget Sound, the Kitsap Sun reports.
The logistics involved in the move would take several months. Although orca whales are regularly transferred on cargo planes among aquariums— Kinley says there are on average 160 flights with orcas on board a year— Tokitae would first need to get acclimated to the sling used in the flight transport.
Kinley is adamant about the significance of Tokitae’s return as a kind of symbolic victory for conservation efforts to restore the southern resident orca whale population, even as critics could point to more urgently pressing issues facing the whales: the southern residents are listed under the Endangered Species Act and NOAA consistently reports that the endangered status of their native prey, wild Chinook salmon, has reduced their natural body fat to levels that critically jeopardize their health.
“It’s the first step in healing. That we’re gonna say, ‘we are bringing your daughter home, and we are sorry.’ We’re just hoping that with the apology, they realize that there’s hope, that we can learn. As humans, we can learn what we did was wrong, and we can correct that wrong,” Kinley continued.
The Lummi member views the capture of Tokitae as resonant with her own lived experience.
“There are parallels between us and the southern residents. We had so many of our children taken and put in boarding schools. When those folks came back from boarding schools, they didn’t tell their story. They held it inside to not cause greater damage,” Kinley added.
“I do know that she knows her southern resident’s song. It’s been played for her and she still recognizes it, because she was three or four years old when she was taken, so she’d already had years with her family.”
The reclamation effort has roots in the Lummi tribe’s history. Kinley notes that oral history recounts thematic messages of stewardship and conservation towards the orca, which makes Tokitae’s return more urgent for the Lummi.
“Our history wasn’t written, our history is oral. Our history is passed down by stories. And these stories are so important that they’re never changed. We have stories that were told to us by our chief that … [the orcas] are just an extension of our family,” Kinley offered.
“They’re our family that lives under the waves, that they put on their underwater regalia. They button it up, and then they’re allowed to live under the water. It’s our responsibility to always take care of them. We failed. We have let the Salish Sea get to a point where they are spending their entire day looking for a meal now, where their meals used to just pass them by, and then they had plenty of time to play.”
Hear Seattle’s Morning New’s entire interview with Ellie Kinley on the campaign to bring captive orca Tokitae home here:
- Tune in to KIRO Newsradio weekdays at 5am for Dave Ross on Seattle's Morning News.