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

·8-min read

Five decades ago, a group of men rounded up more than 80 orcas in a cove on Whidbey Island off Washington state. Using boats, explosives, nets and sticks, they separated young orca calves from their mothers. Locals were haunted by the whales’ human-like cries, according to an account of the day.

Six baby whales were taken away that day in Penn Cove and sold to marine parks. Most didn’t last a year in captivity. Only one who was captured and sold is still alive.

That female whale has spent the past 52 years of her life in a pool in the Miami Seaquarium – the smallest orca enclosure in North America – performing for crowds until her retirement earlier this year.

Now there’s a chance she could finally go home. Activists are fighting to return the whale – named Tokitae – to the Pacific north-west to live out her final days and possibly reconnect with her family. Her mother, believed to be in her 90s, still swims the waters of the Salish Sea, leading a pod of southern resident killer whales to find salmon.

Her captivity is an anachronism – a bridge between a time when whales were sold for human entertainment, and today, when the practice is largely scorned. The campaign to release her has gathered supporters from around the globe, and united activists, Indigenous groups and philanthropists with a common cause.

“We owe all these captive animals an opportunity to live in an environment as close to their natural environment as we can possibly provide,” says Charles Vinick, of the Whale Sanctuary Project, which helps free captive whales around the world.

Two activists, one dressed in a black and white unitard to look like a killer whale with shackles around her arms, protest in front of the Miami Seaquarium sign.
Activists have called for the release of Tokitae to possibly reconnect with her pod and live out her final days in the Salish Sea. Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

Whales like Toki have earned their human owners millions of dollars and entertained countless people, Vinick reminds. “We owe them a retirement program, a pension … giving them back something like this is the least we can do.”

But her possible release also poses profound questions about how to repair the damage of past mistakes. Can an animal who has spent so long in captivity be safely released into their native environment? If not, where should she go?

The answers could point the way forward for her other whales around the world. The Whale Sanctuary Project notes that there are still more than 3,000 whales and dolphins in captivity globally, including 60 orcas and more than 300 belugas at marine parks and aquariums.

‘It’s against all odds that she’s still alive’

Tokitae, whose show business name is Lolita, performed in shows for 48 years of her life, jumping, flipping and hoisting trainers in the air.

Life hasn’t always been easy: for a decade, she shared a tank with another killer whale named Hugo, but he died of a brain aneurysm in 1980 after repeatedly slamming himself into the glass walls of the enclosure.

An orca beaches herself on a white platform in a pool at the Miami Seaquarium as a trainer in a neoprene suit stands next to her, petting her chin.
Toki is the second oldest killer whale in captivity and is in remarkably good shape. Here, she is seen performing with a trainer in 1995. Photograph: Nuri Vallbona/AP

Tokitae, Toki for short, is the second oldest killer whale in captivity, and her health has had its ups and downs. For instance, recent independent assessments chronicled the aftermath of an acute illness that sickened her earlier this year.

But despite such issues, experts say she has remained in remarkably good shape considering her long captivity. Howard Garrett is a whale researcher and activist with the Orca Network on Whidbey Island, who started working on plans for her release back in 1995.

“She’s a miracle every day,” says Garrett. “It’s against all odds that she is still alive. I think it’s about her mental health that keeps her physical health in good shape.”

He points to videos showing that Toki exercises herself with no trainers present, doing laps and racing around the pool. “She’s not withdrawn, neurotic, not the stereotypic behavior that indicates any kind of brain damage associated with being in captivity,” he says. “She may be a complete outlier in her ability to stay healthy.”

Efforts to free Toki have stretched for decades, but have taken on renewed urgency in recent years.

Campaigners got a boost in 2005 when southern resident orcas were granted protection under the Endangered Species Act – protection that was extended specifically to Toki in 2015 by the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 2021, the USDA released a report outlining how the Miami Seaquarium had cut corners and had denied Toki adequate care – including dirty water in her tank, a lack of shelter from the beating sun, and feeding her rotten fish which led to intestinal issues.

Protesters hold signs and wave their arms in a parking lot. The sign in the foreground has an illustration of a killer whale and the words ‘We swim circles while you take selfies’.
Protesters attempt to turn people away from the Miami Seaquarium in 2015, the same year that Toki was given protection under the Endangered Species Act. Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP

And in 2021, the Seaquarium was sold to a new owner, more amenable to discussions about releasing Toki, and a philanthropist named Pritam Singh started a foundation – Friends of Lolita – to work on her eventual release. Vinick’s organization is now working on Toki’s situation alongside Friends of Lolita and Toki’s owners, The Dolphin Company (which is the company licensed to operate the Seaquarium).

Garrett believes returning her to the Pacific is possible; she could still be transported for 10 hours in a comfortable fleece-lined stretcher from Miami to somewhere in the San Juan Islands with cool water, and he says there has never been any harm done to whales while moving them in 50 years.

If successful, her release would be a rare case. Few other whales have made it out of captivity. Keiko – who portrayed Willy in the Free Willy movies – was rehabilitated in a sea pen in Oregon in the 1990s before moving to Iceland and living five more years in the wild. But he was just 22 when he was moved from captivity, a far cry from Toki’s age.

Indigenous communities, especially the Lummi Nation of Washington State, have also gotten involved. In 2019, the Lummi gave her the name Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, which means that she is a member of Sk’aliCh’elh, the resident family of orcas who call the Salish Sea home.

“We consider the southern resident killer whales to be our relatives that live under the waves,” says Raynell Morris, a Lummi member who is on the board of the nonprofit Friends of Lolita and a part of Sacred Lands Conservancy. “From the beginning of time we have loved and respected them.”

Morris says that Toki’s story connects to Indigenous people and their own history of displacement: “It’s the connection to how our Indian children were taken away to boarding schools without permission and they were stripped of language, culture and family. And many of those children never returned home. We need to take care of her and bring her home.”

No simple solution

Toki’s future is still unclear – there is an operational plan drafted to bring her back to the Salish Sea, but she would need a lot of space and potentially food for the rest of her life. She could end up at a netted enclosure run by the Whale Sanctuary Project, a 100-acre (40 hectares) area in Nova Scotia where they hope to bring others, based on the model for land-based sanctuaries for big cats, elephants and great apes.

Another question is one of health – not just hers but that of others, if she were to encounter her pod. Experts worry that the infections Toki picked up in captivity could be spread to other southern resident killer whales, an already-endangered group that numbers only 74 individuals.

And of course, with her age, some fear she might not survive the journey. And if she did, there are concerns about the stress of a new, wild environment on an elderly whale.

“These are very difficult, ethical and health issues,” he says. “Ethically? Oh, yeah, take her home. But at the risk of her life, that’s a much more difficult question.”

Vinick, however, points to her long survival in one of the smallest tanks in the world. “She is one tough whale,” says Vinick.

And she seems to still remember her past life with her family – in 1996, a researcher recorded Toki’s family greeting one another around the San Juan Islands, and reporters played the recording to her at the Miami Seaquarium. She appeared to recognize the calls, though it’s not clear if she could still communicate with her kin.

Toki’s situation is unprecedented with no clear answers, but her advocates won’t give up trying to find them.

“How do you evaluate those risks with an endangered species? Do you take any risks? And do you take risks for her life?” Vinick asks. “Those are the issues we are dealing with I think for the first time ever in her life.”