Tokitae, the performing orca, was freed after 50 years in captivity, A group of men picked up more than 80 orcas and herded them into a cove on Whidbey Island, which is located off the coast of Washington state. They did this by separating the young orca calves from their mothers using boats, explosives, nets, and sticks. According to one version of the day, the humans in the area were frightened by the whales’ human-sounding calls.
That day, six newborn whales were kidnapped from Penn Cove and sold to marine parks across the country. The vast majority died within their first year of captivity. There is only one person still living who was kidnapped and sold.
This female whale has spent the last 52 years of her life performing for spectators in a pool at the Miami Seaquarium, which is the smallest orca habitat in North America. She retired earlier this year, marking the end of her career as a performer at the aquarium.
Now there is a possibility that she will be able to return home. Tokitae, the whale, is the subject of a campaign by activists who want to have her returned to the Pacific northwest, where she can live out her final days and possibly reunite with her family. Her mother, who is thought to be in her 90s, may still be seen swimming through the waters of the Salish Sea while guiding a pod of southern resident killer whales in their search for salmon.
Her enslavement is a relic from a bygone era, when whales were bought and sold for the sake of providing entertainment for humans; in today’s society, the practise is largely looked down upon. The movement to free her has garnered support from all corners of the world and brought together Indigenous peoples’ organisations, philanthropists, and other activists around a shared goal.
Charles Vinick, who works with the Whale Sanctuary Project, which assists in the release of captive whales located all over the world, believes that “we owe all of these confined animals an opportunity to live in a setting as close to their native environment as we can possible provide.”
Vinick points out that whales like Toki have brought in millions of dollars for their human owners and provided entertainment for countless others. We are responsible for providing them with a retirement plan as well as a pension. Offering them something of value in return is the very least that we can do.”
However, the possibility of her release raises significant concerns over how the damage caused by previous errors may be remedied. Is it possible for an animal to be returned to its natural habitat after being held captive for such a significant amount of time? If not, what course of action should she take?
Finding the answers to these questions may help her and other whales all throughout the world go forward. There are still more than 3,000 whales and dolphins held in captivity around the world, according to the Whale Sanctuary Project. This number includes more than 300 belugas and 60 orcas that are housed in marine parks and aquariums.
The fact that she is still alive is a complete and utter miracle.
Tokitae, who is known as Lolita in the entertainment industry, spent the first 48 years of her life onstage as a performer, jumping, flipping, and lifting trainers into the air.
It hasn’t always been easy for her: for ten years, she shared a tank with another killer whale named Hugo, but he passed away in 1980 from a brain aneurysm after repeatedly crashing against the glass walls of the enclosure she was housed in.
Tokitae, often known as Toki for short, is the second-oldest killer whale now kept in captivity, and her health has experienced both highs and lows throughout the years. Recent independent examinations, for instance, detailed the aftereffects of a severe sickness that she suffered from earlier this year.
However, specialists agree that she is in amazingly good form considering the length of time she has been held captive, despite the fact that she has faced challenges such as these. In 1995, Howard Garrett, a whale researcher and activist with the Orca Network on Whidbey Island, began working on plans for the orca’s release. Since then, they have come a long way.
Garrett claims that every day, she proves to be a miracle. “It defies logic that she is still alive given the circumstances. I believe that her mental health is what contributes to the fact that her physical health is in such terrific form.
He shows recordings in which Toki is shown exercising on her own, without the assistance of a personal trainer, by swimming laps and competing in races around the pool. “She’s not withdrawn, neurotic, and not the stereotypical behaviour that signals any sort of brain damage associated with being in captivity,” he says. “[Her] conduct doesn’t indicate that she’s had any kind of brain damage associated with being in captivity.” It’s possible that her capacity to avoid illness puts her in a category all by herself.
The efforts to release Toki date back several decades, but in recent years they have taken on a fresh sense of desperation and urgency.
Activists received a boost in their efforts in 2005, when the Endangered Species Act was amended to protect southern resident orcas. This protection was extended specifically to Toki in 2015 by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a report in 2021 that detailed how the Miami Seaquarium had cut corners and had failed to provide adequate care for Toki. This included keeping dirty water in her tank, failing to provide her with adequate shelter from the beating sun, and feeding her rotten fish, which led to intestinal issues.
And in the year 2021, the Seaquarium was sold to a new owner who was more open to having conversations about releasing Toki. At the same time, a philanthropist by the name of Pritam Singh established a charity called Friends of Lolita to strive toward the eventual liberation of Lolita. Vinick’s organisation is currently working on the matter of Toki in conjunction with Friends of Lolita and The Dolphin Company, which is Toki’s owner (which is the company licenced to operate the Seaquarium).
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 according to Garrett, there has never been any harm done to whales while moving them in the past 50 years. He believes that returning her to the Pacific is a possibility.
If they were able to free her, that would be an extremely unusual occurrence. Only a handful of other whales have managed to escape captivity. Keiko, the killer whale who played the role of Willy in the Free Willy films, underwent rehabilitation in the 1990s in a sea pen in Oregon. After that, she moved to Iceland and spent another five years living in the wild there. But at the time he was freed from captivity, he was just 22 years old, which is a significant difference from Toki’s age.
There has also been participation from native groups, most notably the Lummi Nation, which is located in the state of Washington. In 2019, she was given the name Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Lummi people, which indicates that she is a member of the Sk’aliCh’elh family of resident orcas who make the Salish Sea their home. This happened in 2019.
Raynell Morris, a member of the Lummi tribe who is on the board of the non-profit organisation Friends of Lolita and is also a part of the Sacred Lands Conservancy, shared the following about the southern resident killer whales: “We consider them to be our family that live under the waves.” Since the dawn of time, humans have had a deep affection for and respect for them.
According to Morris, the story of Toki has a connection to Indigenous people and their own history of displacement. “It’s the connection to how our Indian children were hauled away to boarding schools without permission, and they were deprived of language, culture, and family,” Morris said. And a significant number of those children were never seen again. It is imperative that we look after her and bring her back to the house.
No straightforward solution
Toki’s future is still unknown; nevertheless, there is a plan in place to return her back to the Salish Sea; however, in order to do so, she will require a significant amount of room, and she may also require sustenance for the rest of her life. It is possible that she will end up in a fenced-in area that is managed by the Whale Sanctuary Project in Nova Scotia. This is a 100-acre (40 hectare) area where they hope to bring other whales, and it is modelled after land-based sanctuaries for large animals such as big cats, elephants, and great apes.
If she were to run into her pod, there is also the issue of health to consider, and not just for herself but also for the people around her. The experts are concerned that the diseases that Toki picked up while he was in custody could be spread to other southern resident killer whales, a group that is already in risk of extinction because there are only 74 animals left.
Given her advanced age, there is a natural concern that she might not make it through the trip. And if she did, there are questions about how an aged whale would react to the stress of being in a new, natural habitat.
He says, “These are very difficult issues from both an ethical and a health standpoint.” “Ethically? Oh, certainly, you should bring her home. However, if her life is in danger, that is a question that is far more difficult to answer.
Vinick, on the other hand, brings up the fact that she lived for a long time in one of the smallest tanks in the world. Vinick describes the whale as “one strong whale.”
A researcher videotaped Toki’s family greeting one another around the San Juan Islands in 1996, and reporters played the recording to her at the Miami Seaquarium. It appears that she still remembers her previous existence with her family. She appeared to recognise the calls, but it is unclear whether or not she is still able to converse with her relatives.
The circumstances surrounding Toki are unprecedented, and there are no obvious solutions; yet, those who support her won’t give up looking for them.
“How do you determine the severity of those hazards when dealing with endangered species? Do you ever put your life in danger? And do you put your own life in danger to save hers? Vinick asks. “I believe that we are dealing with challenges of that nature for the very first time in her life,” the speaker said.