‘The first step in healing,’ Lummi say of push to return captured orca to the Salish Sea

Apr 6, 2022, 4:07 PM | Updated: 6:04 pm
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)
(Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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.

Puget Sound orca gives birth to calf in ‘good physical condition’

“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:

Dave Ross on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
  • listen to dave rossTune in to KIRO Newsradio weekdays at 5am for Dave Ross on Seattle's Morning News.

Dave's Commentary

Local News

Ted Buehner

Dry summers delay changes in leaves, but brilliant autumn colors around the corner

This sunny dry weather is expected to continue through Columbus Day Weekend, providing more unseasonably warm weather for enjoying fall hues.
17 hours ago
Hanna Scott

No timeline for Office of Independent Investigations use of force cases to begin

“The new Office of Independent Investigation will increase transparency and trust in investigations of deadly uses of force by law enforcement."
17 hours ago
Nicole Jennings

Postseason baseball within reach for Mariners, starved fans

With playoffs closer than ever, Mariners fans await tonight's results with baited breath
17 hours ago
Hanna Scott

Report discovers troubling gap between BIPOC, white homeowners in Washington state

More than 143,000 BIPOC households would need to become homeowners to close the gap between white and BIPOC households in Washington.
17 hours ago
Sam Campbell

Edmonds high school student arrested for bringing ‘ghost gun’ to school

Edmonds Police Department (EDP) thanking the vigilance of one student who they say spoke up when they knew a fellow 15-year-old student brought a loaded gun to class at Edmonds-Woodway High School Thursday.
17 hours ago
Photo from KIRO 7...
KIRO 7 News Staff

Olympia woman facing fines over ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign inside her home

An Olympia woman is being threatened with fines over a sign hanging inside her home.
17 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
‘The first step in healing,’ Lummi say of push to return captured orca to the Salish Sea