Lummi Tribe: Tokitae’s return home is ‘righting a wrong’

Mar 31, 2023, 12:22 PM

miami seaquarium lolita...

Trainer Marcia Hinton pets Tokitae, a captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami in the 1990s. (File photo: Nuri Vallbona, Miami Herald via The Associated Press)

(File photo: Nuri Vallbona, Miami Herald via The Associated Press)

A Southern Resident Killer whale kept in captivity for more than 50 years is a significant step closer to coming home to the waters of the Puget Sound.

“I’m just trying not to cry, again, because I’ve spent a good part of the last couple of hours crying,” Lummi Tribal member Ellie Kinley said.

Kinley cried in relief at the announcement that the Miami Seaquarium, the nonprofit “Friends of Toki,” and philanthropist Jim Irsay have all signed off on an agreement to return Tokitae to the Salish Sea.

Beloved orca will return to Seattle after performing for 50 years

For the Lummi Tribe, it would be a homecoming.

“It was taught to use that they (whales) are just an extension of our family,” Kinley said. “They’re our family that lives under the waves.”

In 1970, when Tokitae was about 5 years old, she was snatched from the waters of the Puget Sound and shipped to the marine mammal park where she performed for crowds under the name Lolita.

“We allowed that daughter to be stolen,” Kinley says. “Bringing her home is righting a wrong.”

The effort to bring Tokitae home has been underway for years, but it gained steam when the head of the Dolphin Company, which took over management of the Seaquarium, expressed an interest in the idea.

Another key factor is the killer whale’s health is improving. In 2021, a USDA inspection cited poor conditions at the Seaquarium under its former owner.

Animal advocates said Tokitae’s health suffered, but is now improving under consistent veterinary care. Despite all the challenges, Tokitae has lived much longer than other captive killer whales.

“I think she knew she would come home,” Kinley said. “And I think that’s why she’s been able to be so strong for so many years.”

The Sacred Lands Conservancy has developed a detailed plan on how to safely fly Tokitae — in a cargo plane — from Florida to Washington, where she’d be placed in a large net pen in the Salish Sea. It would be a whole new world of freedom in comparison to Seaquarium.

“She’s in a tank that’s 20 feet deep. She’s in a tank that’s as deep as the length of her body,” Kinley said, but in the sea, “she’s going to be in a pen where she can swim at full speed.”

And she’ll be in her home waters.

Seattle dives into professional cricket with new franchise, the Orcas

Kinley said she’s hopeful Tokitae will be able to reconnect with her family in the L pod. There’s evidence her mother is still alive. Kinley said Tokitae recognized the killer whales’ song, which has been played for her.

While the goal is to move Tokitae within two years, there are still steps ahead, including approval by several government agencies. But Kinley remains confident.

“It’s been a long road. It’s been a long fight, but we never stopped moving forward,” Kinley said. “We were always preparing for this, knowing it would happen some day. Today is that ‘some day.’ ”

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Lummi Tribe: Tokitae’s return home is ‘righting a wrong’