Tokitae Died at the Miami Seaquarium

Lolita/Tokitae the orca with her head just above the pool's surface at the Miami Seaquarium.
Photo by Leonardo Dasilva on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Tokitae has died.

This is the second captive orca to die in captivity in the US this year, as we lost Kiska at Marineland Ontario/Niagara Falls in March.

She was so close to being back in the ocean, where she belonged. Scientists even believe her mother is still living in the Pacific Northwest and that they could’ve possibly been reunited someday.

Tokitae, formerly known as Lolita, lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years. The marine amusement park recently signed an agreement to release her back to the Pacific Northwest, and you can read the updates here. This effort took many years and involved scientists, marine biologists, activists, documentarians, writers, etc. The owner of the Indianapolis Colts offered to pay for her transport from Miami to the west coast. The Lummi Nation was going to monitor and care for Tokitae in her new home. The wheels were set in motion and the plans were established.

But it was too late, the Miami Seaquarium should’ve let her go years ago.

Lolita/Tokitae the orca jumping out of the pool straight up at the Miami Seaquarium, trainers and audience in background.
Photo by Rick Webb on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

I cried pretty hard when I saw the press release from the Whale Sanctuary Project. I really believed Tokitae was going home.

The Friends of Toki and the Whale Sanctuary Project were the two organizations actively working to get her back to the ocean. But there were other individuals and organizations that helped raise awareness and money for over a decade. Thank you to everyone who ever advocated for Tokitae, whether you wrote about her, filmed her, protested for her release, raised money, or raised awareness about her. So many of us loved her and cared about her. She will always be in our hearts.

Kiska Died Alone

Kiska swimming in her tank, blue water surrounding her.
Kiska at MarineLand in 2017. Photo by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Kiska is dead.

I cried when I saw the announcement from The Whale Sanctuary Project. Though I never met this orca, she was in my heart. I had hoped that she’d be one of the first orcas to be relocated to the sanctuary.

“The news is devastating to all of us who have been working toward the time when she could be retired to sanctuary.” -Lori Marino, President of The Whale Sanctuary Project1

Kiska at Marineland Canada in 2011 in her tank, with silhouetted people looking through the glass.
Kiska, the orca that lived alone at Marineland until her death in 2023. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media.

Kiska’s Sad Life

MarineLand Canada announced that Kiska, the loneliest orca, died of a bacterial infection on March 9, 2023. She had been there since 1979, captured as a calf near Iceland (along with Keiko, the star of Free Willy) and taken from her family. She suffered the loss of all 5 of her own babies under MarineLand’s care. “One of them didn’t even survive long enough to be named. Orcas feel deep, complex emotions, and the bond between mother and child is so profound that it is hard to imagine the grief and trauma that Kiska would have suffered in each of her bereavements.”2

Worse, Kiska had been living alone in her small tank since 2011. Read this article about her life.

The video below shows how lonely, bored, and unstimulated she was in 2021.

The marine amusement park has been under investigation for animal cruelty for several years. Animal Justice, an animal advocacy and legal group in Canada, worked to help Kiska by filing legal complaints on her behalf, including when “disturbing videos were shared showing the orca floating listlessly and slamming her body against the side of her tank.”3

Animal Justice says they are devastated by her death. They are calling for renewed interest in charges against MarineLand “over the cruel and illegal living conditions that the facility forced Kiska to endure. Orcas are incredibly social animals, but Kiska had no one by her side since 2011, and suffered from agonizing loneliness as well as a lack of space and mental stimulation in her small barren tank. Under federal and provincial laws, it’s illegal to cause animals suffering and distress, which includes psychological distress stemming from boredom and isolation.”4

Kiska, a lone orca swimming in a tank with people watching through a glass window, at Marineland. Canada, 2011
Kiska, a lone orca at MarineLand Canada, 2011. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

We Must Learn and Take Action

We have to keep trying, keep learning, and keep calling for action. We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go.

Kiska was the last orca living in captivity in Canada since the 2019 passing of Bill S-203. This law made it illegal to breed or import marine mammals into captivity. However, the whales and dolphins currently in captivity at Marineland were exempted from these laws. “Her death marks the end of legal orca captivity in the country.”5

“No other orcas [in Canada] will endure the heartbreaking suffering she faced.” -Camille Labchuk, Animal Justice6

Animal Justice plans to continue investigating MarineLand Canada and urges support for other projects. “It is heartbreaking to know that Kiska will never get to experience freedom, but we hope this tragedy spurs support for the Whale Sanctuary Project, and that other whales at MarineLand will be able to live out of the rest of their lives in a safe environment with hundreds of times more space than the tiny tanks they currently endure.”7

The Whale Sanctuary Project agrees. “The loss of Kiska will only intensify the urgency of our team to help Marineland relocate the approximately 34 belugas and five dolphins who remain there.”8 They ended their statement with this:

“Meanwhile, we can only ask that Marineland be fully transparent about the circumstances surrounding Kiska’s passing. But in the end, we know that no words can explain away a lifetime of pain and misery as experienced by a deeply intelligent, social, family-centered being who had the terrible misfortune to become known as the loneliest whale in the world.”9

Don’t give up. We can save the others.

Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.

 

Footnotes:

What They Learned From Keiko, the Star of Free Willy

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, viewed from underwater.
Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc. on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When it was released in 1993, the huge success of the film Free Willy was unexpected. Financially, it earned $77 million ($149 million in today’s dollars) at the domestic box office and spawned sequels. More importantly, it created a movement. Some marine biologists, scientists, and animal rights activists had already been advocating for the end of captivity for cetaceans. But Free Willy brought the notion home to children’s minds.

So, what happened to the orca who starred in the film? Keiko was freed from captivity within marine amusement parks. He spent the last years of his life swimming in the open ocean. I’ve put together a short version of his story in this article. But if you want to learn more, there are books and documentaries detailing his story.

Free Willy movie cover

Keiko’s Capture & Sale

“Free Willy and its fantasy of an orca simply leaping over a breakwater to freedom notwithstanding, returning orcas to the wild is not a simple thing.”1

Keiko was captured as a very young whale off the coast of Iceland in the late 1970s. He was too young to be away from his mother. Sædýrasafnið, an aquarium in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland (closed in 1987), housed him and trained him to perform tricks.2 In 1982, MarineLand Canada purchased Keiko (and Kiska) from Sædýrasafnið.

MarineLand sold him in 1985 for $350,000 to Reino Aventura (now Six Flags México). This park put him in a tank designed for dolphins, so it was small and shallow. When he was at the surface, his flukes touched the bottom of the pool. His mental health suffered as his only company was sometimes a few dolphins, no other orcas. He wore his teeth down by gnawing the concrete around his tank. He was underweight and had little muscle tone from not having space to swim and dive. His physical health continually declined under their care. After all, this was an Icelandic orca living in Mexico City – an extremely different climate. A veterinarian estimated that if Keiko was kept at the Reino Aventura, he would probably die within a few months.3

Black and white newspaper photo of a trainer standing on top of Keiko and Kiska at Marineland in the early 1980s.
A trainer standing on Keiko and Kiska at MarineLand Canada in the early 1980s. Credit: Photos provided by HaH, from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).
Photo of the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura.
This is the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura. Keiko could hardly swim in this dolphin pool. Photo by Rodrigo SanSs on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A Film Project

When Warner Brothers and the producers began looking to audition killer whales for Free Willy, they ran into roadblocks. Twenty-one of the 23 orcas in the United States belonged to SeaWorld, and they declined to allow any orcas to be in any films. “No doubt th[e] villainous portrayal of marine-park owners, as well as the storyline depicting the freeing of a captive orca, had a lot to do with why, when the film’s producers first approached officials at parks such as SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, they were turned away.”4 Any marine amusement park that took on Keiko would have had the line of conversation about freeing orcas permanently opened up.

But when the producers found Keiko and Reino Aventura, which was not in great condition, they asked the owners about auditioning Keiko. Reino Aventura’s owners agreed as it was an opportunity to profit from Keiko. But they may have also hoped that this would get him into a living better situation and prevent his likely slow death. But “none of them were quite prepared for the film’s overwhelming success.”5 

The Impact of Free Willy

Numerous articles and TV news stories followed the film’s success, highlighting Keiko’s poor health and living conditions. His tiny pool at Reino Aventura could not even filter out the orca’s daily waste. His skin lesions, caused by papillomavirus, were worsened by the small pool, swimming in his own waste, and from the polluted air of Mexico City.

At the end of the film, the producers had included a message directing those interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to the environmental group Earth Island Institute. The overwhelming number of calls from people and the thousands of letters from children surprised everyone. While people cared about whales, many were more interested in saving ‘Willy’ specifically. But no other park or aquarium would take him as a transfer because of fears that his virus would spread to other orcas. But it also could have been bad for public relations.6 

“Warner Brothers called us and said—“Oh my god, we’re getting hundreds of calls and thousands and thousands of mailgrams and telegrams and letters from people saying—‘This whale jumped to freedom at the end of Free Willy, but what about the whale in real life?’” -David Phillips7

The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation

In 1994, David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute, with the support of the movie’s producers, formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.8 The mission was to rehabilitate and release or “free” Keiko.

The owners of Reino Aventura agreed to let Keiko go as long as the expenses of relocating and continued care of him could be met. For this, more than a million people came together. People raised money through bake sales and children collected small donations. UPS flew Keiko free of charge. Warner Brothers and New Regency, perhaps under pressure, donated a million dollars. The Humane Society of the United States donated a million. Last, a private foundation donated another million.9

“While not all captive orcas may be viable release candidates and not all captive orcas may ever be released back into the wild, we owe it to them to try and at the very least, retire them and improve their current captive conditions.” -Corrine Henn10

Relocating An Orca, Twice

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

“Keiko was a trailblazer for the reintroduction of marine mammals.” -Dave Phillips, Director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation11

Keiko was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium from 1996–1998. His health greatly improved and he gained over a thousand pounds. The aquarium’s attendance greatly increased. Though he was on the path to release, there was still controversy. There were some who felt he would not survive in the ocean. There was even “a conspiracy theory circulating in the most radical anti-captivity ranks that Sea World might actually be behind the free-Keiko efforts, knowing that they would fail, thus inoculating amusement parks around the world from an upwelling of liberationist sentiment.” Even in Iceland, there were entities against moving Keiko and others that saw no benefit to having Keiko in a pen in there since it would not be for tourism.12 But Icelandic waters were the right area for him to go. The Icelandic government had to be convinced, as did the U.S. Congress, and eventually, they both approved the project.

In 1998, Keiko was relocated to his new sea pen in a bay in Iceland, with the help of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The costs of moving him, building the sea pen, and caring for him were astronomical. There are some who criticized the project, then and now, simply because of the high financial costs. But this was always the right thing to do for this orca. As writer Susan Orlean wrote:

“If anyone thought that the money being spent on his rehabilitation was an insane extravagance, they didn’t blame it on the whale: it wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico. It wasn’t his fault that he became a ten-thousand-pound symbol of promises kept (or not) and dreams achieved (or not) and integrity maintained (or not) and nature respected (or not). It also wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to blow a bubble-net and trap herring, and it wasn’t his fault that he’d been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they viewed him as a bit of a freak.”13

Freeing Willy

Keiko spent a couple of years learning to hunt fish and communicate with other whales, under the supervision of humans. In 2002, Keiko left his sea pen for the final time and swam to Norway, eventually settling in the Taknes fjord. While he never reconnected with his original pod, he lived for another full year before succumbing to pneumonia in December 2003. But he never completely stopped desiring human contact. His human caretakers were there until the end, as Keiko viewed them as his companions rather than other orcas. Some look back at this experiment and consider it a failure. However, it was a success story in that Keiko swam freely outside of the confines of a concrete tank for the last years of his life. He swam in the ocean for almost 5 years after more than 20 years in captivity.

“In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose14

Today, David Phillips, who organized Keiko’s rehabilitation and release, is the Treasurer of the Whale Sanctuary Project. He was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization Earth Island Institute, and he also directs the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Here is his reflection on the Keiko project:

“Most people ran for the hills and wanted nothing to do with Keiko. ‘Are you kidding? We’re going to have to try to convince the Mexican government to give us this 8000 pound orca, and then figure out a way to fly him, and build him a whole new facility for rehab, and then we’re going to have to bring him out of there and try to get him into Iceland? You’d have to be out of your mind. Who’s going to pay for all this? It’s never been done before. Maybe he’s going to die—maybe in transit. Why would the Mexicans give him to us, and why would Iceland let him come in?'”

But for Phillips, Keiko was a success story even though there are still doubters. “We didn’t get to hand pick the best candidate for release. We had Keiko. And his rescue was a big intractable problem where we had to accommodate a lot of risk, and there were going to be people who wouldn’t like what we were going to do at every stage along the way. And that’s part of the deal.”15

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

What They Learned From Keiko

Keiko was the first captive orca to use a sea pen for his successful rescue rehab and release effort. The obvious, most important thing they learned from Keiko was that it could be done. Captive cetaceans can be rescued, rehabilitated, and retired.

Scientists and marine biologists learned a lot from Keiko. The orca was able to regain its health in natural seawater after spending years in chemically treated water. He relearned the skills necessary to feed himself and he learned how to interact with wild orcas in his native waters. As noted by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP): “Evidence shows that keeping orcas in captivity is inhumane and shortens their lives. During the years in which Keiko was rescued, regained his health and returned to his home waters, seventeen other orcas died in captivity, along with many more captive dolphins and whales. We are proud to have given Keiko the opportunity to live out his life in his home waters.”16 At the time of his death, Keiko was the second longest-lived male orca ever held in captivity. He lived much longer than the average lifespan of male orcas held at SeaWorld.

“Keiko taught us how difficult it is to put one back.” -Charles Vinick, Webinar from The Whale Sanctuary Project17

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by “Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.,” Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Keiko’s Importance

Some say the money spent on setting Keiko free might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat. But Keiko likely would’ve died shortly after the releases of the Free Willy movies. So the money was worth saving his life. I also believe that what scientists, marine biologists, and other experts learned from Keiko’s experience helps set us up for a better future.

The Whale Sanctuary Project uses Keiko’s story to explain how captive cetaceans can be retired from marine amusement parks. They also view the orca’s journey as a learning platform. This project is made possible because of Keiko’s legacy.

In 2019, Canada banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity and outlawed breeding, trade, possession, and capture of cetaceans. The Canadian media colloquially named it the “Free Willy” bill. While the legislation does not cover cetaceans already in captivity, including Kiska at MarineLand Canada, it is apparent that Keiko’s story extends far beyond the success of Free Willy. Keiko will always be loved, cherished, and remembered. That was his superpower and it is now his legacy.

“The time has come for us to see orcas in captivity as a part of our past – not a tragic part of our future. Let’s end the show now and retire these intelligent, social, complex animals to sea pen sanctuaries.” -Jean-Michel Cousteau18

 

Additional Resources:

Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy Film CoverFilm, Keiko: The Untold Story, 2010.

 

 

 

 

Webinar, “Reintroducing Keiko (the “Free Willy” whale) to the Wild,” Whale Sanctuary Project, August 7, 2020.

Webinar, “What Is Keiko the Orca’s Legacy?” Whale Sanctuary Project, December 18, 2020.

Article, “Truth About Killing Keiko: What SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You To Know About Freeing Killer Whales,” International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), April 7, 2015. This article reviews the book, Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons, which scientists argue is biased and not fully factual. The author helped establish Ocean Embassy, a company aimed at catching wild dolphins and selling them to aquariums all over the globe.

Footnotes:

Update on Lolita/Tokitae

Last updated on July 16, 2023. Click here for the latest information.

Image of Lolita/Tokitae jumping out of the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

This is an update to my article about Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium, which is in one of the saddest captive orca situations. This orca is the star attraction at the Miami Seaquarium and so the facility has a vested interest in keeping her onsite. She has been the lone orca for over 50 years, living in a tank so small it violates federal regulations. Now poor inspections and revelations about neglect in her care have made new headlines.

“It is Lolita, more than any other captive orca, who offers the potential to answer the big question that hovered around the Blackfish debate: Why not return wild-born orcas to their native waters and pods?” – David Neiwert1

Veterinarian Ignored

In June 2021, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection of the Miami Seaquarium found that it was providing low-quality animal care. The 17-page report outlined many problems and health risks to Lolita/Tokitae. The report noted that veterinary recommendations from the park’s own veterinary team were repeatedly ignored: “The facility’s attending veterinarian’s recommendations regarding the provision of adequate veterinary care and other aspects of animal care and use have been repeatedly disregarded or dismissed over the last year…Failure to allow appropriate veterinary authority poses a risk to the health and welfare of the animals.”2 The primary veterinarian who made the ignored recommendations was fired in the same month as the USDA inspection.

One of the problems included that Lolita/Tokitae and other marine mammals were fed rotten fish for 8 days, even though the veterinarian and others objected. The orca developed inflammation in her bloodwork within a week. The marine amusement park had also cut her daily food allowance down significantly. Since orcas rely on fish not just for food but also for their water intake, Lolita/Tokitae could become severely dehydrated.

Other veterinary recommendations the park ignored included those about performance at her age, her diet, and even injuries. “After Lolita had injured her lower jaw, [the veterinarian] specifically directed the staff not to request head-in entry jumps or fast swims from Lolita, now a geriatric whale. Yet, regardless of this directive, according to the report, the training manager incorporated extra head-in jumps to its routine and continued fast swims.”3 

Worse, the report detailed many other issues. These included “critical” issues with the pools and enclosures for dolphins and seals, poor water quality, and inadequate shade for the animals (which causes skin and eye lesions). Dolphins had been injured and some had even died because incompatible animals were housed together.

“She injured her jaw because they were making her do things that she was just too old to do. And the vet told them not to make her do them anymore. And they ignored the vet.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose4

Lolita jumping out of the water in front of an audience at the Miami Seaquarium with her trainer behind her on the work platform.
Photo by Freebird on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Response from the Scientific Community

Many marine biologists, animal rights activists, and empathetic people, in general, find this report offensive. The poor USDA report elicited this response from Dr. Naomi A. Rose:

“What this outrageous report all boils down to is, the infractions were or will be corrected, at least long enough to pass muster at some follow-up inspection. And therefore it is dismayingly likely that, aside from a citation (which carries no fine), nothing will happen to [Miami Seaquarium]. They will suffer no penalty, they get to keep their APHIS license, no animals will be confiscated. And NOTHING WILL CHANGE. They are likely to be cited again in the future for similar infractions, because they know they will suffer no real consequences for cutting corners and being lax…It is now very clear that the law will NEVER protect Toki[tae]. I don’t know what will work, after all these years of so many people trying to help her, but at the very least, we need to spread the word of what has happened at [Miami Seaquarium]. Based on this inspection report alone, [Miami Seaquarium] is failing abysmally in its duty of care for this amazing being.5

Park Sold Off to Another Company

Within two months of the poor inspection, Palace Entertainment, the current owner, sold the aquarium to the Dolphin Company. The timing is questionable. The Dolphin Company operates 32 parks and dolphin habitats in 8 countries including the United States, Italy, Mexico, and Argentina. They operate under different brands, including Dolphin Discovery, Dolphin Cove, Zoomarine, and Marineland (but not MarineLand Canada).

Both companies expect the final transitions to take place by the end of the year. The new company has promised to make improvements to the facilities and to allow authorities to make unannounced inspections. The director of Zoo Miami evaluated the Dolphin Company’s plans, including one specifically for Lolita’s care, and encouraged the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners to sign off on the deal.6

New Promises

The County Commission unanimously approved the transfer of ownership, as long as they “address” the issues in the USDA report. The Miami-Dade County Mayor proposed changes to the lease, which included requiring “compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, the maintenance of certifications by recognized organizations as the American Humane Association, and a commitment to seeking an accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.” The county will increase oversight of the Seaquarium and “will aggressively monitor the health and well-being of these animals under the leadership of The Dolphin Company,” the mayor said.7

Miami Seaquarium
Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

Skepticism

Not everyone believes that the Dolphin Company will fulfill its proposals. Ric O’Barry, the founder of The Dolphin Project, wrote: “Miami Seaquarium, the facility holding Lolita (Tokitae) the long-term captive orca, is being sold to Mexico’s The Dolphin Company (aka: The Dolphin Abusement Company) for an undisclosed amount…The company has no plans to make major changes to the park and will continue to use Lolita as [the] main attraction.”8

Miami Seaquarium protester Thomas Copeland is also skeptical. He doubts that the new owner will be able to make significant improvements to Lolita/Tokiate’s situation, simply because her tank is too small. He said, “At its deepest point on that angle, it’s 20-feet deep…she’s 22 feet long. The simple math tells you that the animal is too big for this tank.”9 Unless the Dolphin Company plans to expand the entire whale tank, Lolita/Tokitae will continue to live in too small of a space. However, the Miami Seaquarium has not been able to expand, as the Village of Key Biscayne has denied previous requests for permission to expand. There is very little land in this area and the town tries to control business expansion and control traffic problems.10

Lolita/Tokitae floating in the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

The Lummi Nation

As with many captive orcas, Lolita/Tokitae cannot just be released into the ocean because she’s lived in captivity for so long. She may not be able to hunt fish or merge into her old pod seamlessly. So the Lummi Nation, the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, is working with several organizations to safely relocate her back to her home waters under their care. The Lummi Nation views the orca as a relative and a member of their tribe. “They believe their treaty rights were violated when she was taken from her family in Puget Sound” in 1970. Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris of the Lummi Nation said, “Under our inherent rights, she’s a relative. We have a right to call her home.” The Lummi Nation call Lolita/Tokitae Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, which means “nice day, pretty colors.”11

“She’s done. Her spirit is crying to come home. Let her go. Let her come home.” -Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris, Lummi Nation12

A trainer at the Miami Seaquarium travels several feet into the air by holding on to Lolita the Killer Whale, the second oldest orca in captivity, as she jumps out of the water, 2022. This must have been captured just shortly before the marine amusement park stopped having her perform. Credit: Miguel Endara / We Animals Media.

Taking Lolita/Tokitae Home

The goal is to return Lolita/Tokitae to the Salish Sea where she was born. It is where her family, the L pod of the Southern Resident orcas, still reside. With guidance from marine biologists and other experts at the Whale Sanctuary Project, the Lummi Nation will provide her care while she lives out her life in a custom-built sea pen, in her natural environment. “As part of our Whale Aid work, the Whale Sanctuary Project has drafted a comprehensive operational plan to safely bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to a secure and protected area within the Salish Sea where she can thrive in her natal waters while receiving ongoing human care and while prioritizing the wellbeing of the Salish Sea ecosystem and all its inhabitants, including the Southern Resident orcas.”13

The plan is comprehensive and supported by the Whale Sanctuary Project, the Orca Network,14 the Earth Law Center,15 and Sacred Sea.16 There are many who argue against her release, but there are even more who argue for her retirement and relinquishment from the Miami Seaquarium.

"50 years of stolen freedom. Retire Lolita." Aerial photo of the Miami Seaquarium's orca tank with public seating surrounding it.
Courtesy of Empty The Tanks. #50YearsOfStolenFreedom #Retire Lolita

Refusal to Relinquish Lolita/Tokitae

“I don’t want these hippies stealing my whale.” -Arthur Hertz former owner of the Miami Seaquarium, referring to animal rights activists in 199617

The main obstacle to this project is the Miami Seaquarium’s refusal to do what is best for the orca. They have repeatedly refused to relinquish Lolita/Tokitae. They argue that she is better off in its care despite well-documented evidence and eyewitness reports of neglect. In 2015, they said: “Moving Lolita in any way, whether to a new pool, a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, would be an experiment. And it is a risk with her life that we are not willing to take. There is no scientific evidence that the 48-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she was returned to the ocean.” They refused to discuss all proposals of her sale or transfer to another park or aquarium, despite that her tank is way too small.18

In 2019, the Miami Seaquarium’s general manager wrote to the Seattle Times that the company had no interest in relinquishing her to another aquarium, marine amusement park, or sanctuary.19 Further, they have argued that she would not survive the long journey to the Pacific Northwest.

Close up of Lolita/Tokitae's face popping out of the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

What’s Next?

Most have speculated that The Dolphin Company will keep Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. An activist told The Palm Beach Post that she emailed The Dolphin Company about Lolita/Tokitae’s release. They responded that they were not yet in charge of Seaquarium operations but that it would soon ‘explore the best options for Lolita’ in the near future. While the activist found hope in their response, I find this response to be the wording of typical corporate avoidance speak. Further, the company did not respond to emails from The Palm Beach Post about Lolita’s future.20 So we’ll see what they do. Meanwhile, activists are still protesting.

Lolita/Tokitae is not performing right now, because allegedly, the Miami Seaquarium’s whale stadium is temporarily closed for repairs.21 Hopefully she is being fed the right amounts of fish, receiving veterinary care, and swimming in clean water. If you want to advocate for this orca, please sign any of the pledges/petitions I’ve listed under Additional Resources below. Stay updated on news related to her situation. Share her story. Most importantly, don’t buy tickets to marine amusement parks! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Updates

March 2022:

The Miami Seaquarium announced that Lolita/Tokitae will no longer be on display. This is because the USDA granted the new owner (The Dolphin Company) a new license to operate the park on the condition that they no longer display Tokitae or Li’i, the Pacific white-sided dolphin that shares a tank with Tokitae.22 

June 2022:

The Dolphin Company allowed an independent health assessment of Tokitae in cooperation with Friends of Toki and The Whale Sanctuary Project. They found her to be in good health overall and planned to continue monitoring her.23 

July 2023:

In March 2023, the Miami Seaquarium announced its agreement to release Lolita/Tokitae! The plan “is the result of a ‘binding agreement’ among The Dolphin Company, which operates the Seaquarium, Miami-Dade County and animal rights advocates, the company said. The move comes after an outcry from those who complained for years that an animal from the ocean should not be kept in a small tank.”24 This has taken years, but finally, it may happen!

Jim Irsay, philanthropist and owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has offered to pay for Lolita’s/Tokitae’s relocation. This will cost millions and may require the use of a 747 plane or a C-17 military plane. The relocation will involve building a sanctuary with netting in the Pacific Ocean off the northwest coast of the United States, which will require a permit from the USDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She will need to be monitored 24/7 and require veterinary care. She will need trainers to help her adapt and teach her how to catch fish again since she’s been in captivity for so long.25 It will take a village, but many of us are hopeful that this allows her to live out the rest of her life happily and with her family.

Eduardo Albor, CEO of The Dolphin Company, said: “Finding a better future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium. With the help of Jim Irsay and Pritam Singh [co-founder of Friends of Toki], we are bringing that dream, the dream of returning Lolita to her home waters, closer than ever.”26

“I know Lolita wants to get to free waters. I don’t care what anyone says. She’s lived this long to have this opportunity. And my only mission is to help this whale get free.” -Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts27

For now, she remains in her small tank but is no longer performing or on exhibit. While the stadium is in poor condition and is no longer open to the public, the pool itself does not appear to have structural issues. In the last six months, the life support system that maintains the water quality in Toki’s pool has been upgraded and dramatically improved. With a systems investment of more than $500,000 in new chillers, filter media, an ozone generator to replace chlorine, and numerous regulators and pump replacements, Toki’s water quality is the best it has been in years and is monitored daily.” A hurricane plan is finally in place.

Friends of Toki state that there are four areas of concentration: 1) Current care for Lolita/Tokitae and conditioning her for transport to Washington State and life in an ocean enclosure. 2) Tribal consultation with the Lummi Nation; Washington State permitting for the site development of her ocean habitat. 3) A law firm is consulting on the federal regulatory side of her relocation, as Tokitae was captured before the Marine Mammal Protection Act, so she’s not protected by that act, and she is no longer under the protection of a federal (USDA) public display permit. 4) The design, fabrication, and installation of the ocean habitat enclosure and barrier net.28

She’s currently 57 but could live several more decades. Her likely mother, Ocean Sun, still resides with the L-pod, and many hope they will be reunited. Stay tuned by subscribing to me, the Whale Sanctuary Project, and Friends of Toki.

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Friends of Toki.

Website, The Whale Sanctuary Project.

Article, “Lolita: Fame and Misfortune,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed November 21, 2021.

Page, “Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut: also known as Tokitae or Lolita,” sacredsea.org.

Book, A Puget Sound Orca in Captivity: The Fight To Bring Lolita Home, by Sandra Pollard, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2019.

Article, “Dark waters, dark secret: Untold story of failed bid to free South Florida orca Lolita,” The Palm Beach Post, October 13, 2021.

Film, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.

Pledge, “FREE LOLITA: Urge The Dolphin Company to Retire Lolita to a Seaside Sanctuary,” PETA.org.

Petition, “Lummi elders: “Free our Relative!” Save endangered orca held captive at Miami Seaquarium,” Change.org.

Petition, “Take the Pledge NOT to Buy a Ticket To a Dolphin Show,” The Dolphin Project.

Website, savelolita.org.

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