On March 30th, 2023, The Dolphin Company, the parent company of the Miami Seaquarium, announced that Tokitae, also known as Lolita and Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, will be headed back home where she belongs! This decision comes after years of calls for Tokitae to be released from activists, organizations, and Coast Salish Nations like the Lummi Nation (the Lhaq’temish people); Tokitae has spent the last five decades in captivity after being stolen from the Salish Sea off of Whidbey Island in 1970.

After capture, Tokitae was sold to the Miami Seaquarium for $6,000 and has spent her entire life in captivity while her family (mostly) remained free in the Salish Sea. While the Miami Seaquarium did retire her just last year, Tokitea still lives in an enclosure that is far too small with utterly inadequate care and used to perform twice a day almost year round. As a (suspected) member of the L Pod, Tokitea is one of the last Southern Resident Killer Whales still alive and the oldest orca in captivity. It is believed that Tokitae’s mother is Ocean Sun (L25), an orca who is still alive.

Her release has been years in the making but will still take another 18-24 months to officially work out. As far as precedent goes, there have been other previously captive orcas released back into the wild. Keiko, the orca star of Free Willy, was the first formerly captive orca to be released back into the wild. While Keiko’s rehabilitation and release weren’t as successful as many had hoped (as he never reintegrated with wild whales), he still got to spend the last few years of his life in significantly better environments, in far better health, and back in his home waters.

According to Indian Country Today (ICT) and Sacred Sea, there are plans for a sanctuary in the Salish Sea for Tokitae, as she will need around-the-clock monitoring and care after spending more than five decades in captivity. This sanctuary is called Xwlemi Tokw and will be a 15-acre custom-built secure area in the Salish Sea. Xwlemi Tokw will allow Tokitae to swim and dive in the waters she was born in while also allowing spiritual practitioners, scientists, and veterinarians to care for her. The Whale Sanctuary Project helped to create an Operational Plan to bring Tokitae home and care for her by collaborating with marine mammal veterinarians, scientists, field researchers, and other experts.

This news is incredible and an exciting move forward! If you want to support Tokitae’s return home and care, consider supporting The Sacred Lands Conservancy (aka Sacred Sea) and their Tokitae Fund. Sacred Sea is an Indigenous-led nonprofit that has long called for her return and will be involved in her care once she returns home.

Feature Image from Miami Herald/TNS

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