Her name was Tokitae, also known by her stage name, Lolita and her indigenous name, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.
On March 30, 2023, the Miami Seaquarium made a groundbreaking announcement that in the following 18-24 months they would return Tokitae to an ocean sanctuary in her home waters in Washington State!
Over the last few years, significant momentum and public support grew to return Tokitae (you may know her by her other names, Lolita and Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut), a 57-year-old captive killer whale, back to her home waters in Washington State. Tokitae was living at the Miami Seaquarium for over fifty years in the smallest orca tank in the US. Unfortunately, Tokitae passed away suddenly in August 2023, before she could return home, but her story inspired millions around the world, and it will continue to inspire many more.
Tokitae was a female member of the L pod, the largest pod of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) who live exclusively in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. The SRKW population is unique in that they exclusively feed on salmon, primarily Chinook salmon. Unfortunately, the SRKW population is currently labeled as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with only 74 individuals left. The primary reasons are lack of food, noise pollution, and poor water quality.
In the 1970s, it was legal to capture wild orcas in Washington State and send them to marine amusement parks to perform in front of tourists. In 1970, at four years old, Tokitae was captured and taken from her family and sold to the Miami Seaquarium (MSQ) for $20,000. When she was captured, Tokitae was named after a Coast Salish greeting meaning “nice day, pretty colors.” When she arrived at MSQ, her name was changed to Lolita to represent a showgirl. Tokitae lived with Hugo, also a Southern Resident killer whale, and they regularly performed shows together. Hugo did not fare well in captivity and after repeatedly banging his head against his tank due to stress, tragically died of a brain aneurysm in 1980.
In 1995, a campaign was launched by Howard Garrett from the Orca Network to return Tokitae home. After the success of the movie Free Willy and Keiko’s return to Iceland, advocates believed Tokitae had a chance. With support from former Gov. Mike Lowry and former Secretary of State Ralph Monroe, the state officials tried to purchase Tokitae from the Miami Seaquarium. Arthur Hertz, former CEO of the venue, was unwilling to engage in conversation and denied the request.
A group of captive orcas performing at a show.
Due to limited funding and decreased media attention, efforts to return Tokitae home slowed down. However, following the incident at SeaWorld involving the death of Dawn Brancheau and the release of the documentaryBlackfish, several lawsuits began to take place. In 2016, PETA, ALDF, and the Orca Network sued the USDA arguing that the Seaquarium violated the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). This was true–Tokitae continues to live in a small, deficient tank that’s 80 ft across and 20 ft deep when she herself is 22 ft long. She also has no shade and is unable to protect herself from the sun. The AWA is meant to protect captive wildlife, but it’s known for being severely under-enforced. As a result, the judge ruled in favor of the USDA and stated that it’s “agency discretion” to decide standards and procedures. Other lawsuits were also unsuccessful. There were attempts to apply the 13th Amendment to captive orcas and use the ESA to claim captivity as harm and harassment for Tokitae.
In 2018, the Lummi nation (the third largest Native American tribe in Washington State) announced their campaign to bring Tokitae home. For them, killer whales are their relatives under the Salish Sea, sharing cultural and spiritual bonds. Tokitae was stolen from the wild, and the Lummi have stated they have a sacred obligation to bring her back. They renamed her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut which means that she’s a member of Sk’aliCh’elh, the family of orcas who live in the Salish Sea. In 2019, Raynell Morris and Ellie Kinley, members of the Lummi nation announced their partnership with the Whale Sanctuary Project and the Earth Law Center to create a logistical and legal plan to bring Tokitae home.
In September of 2021, a shocking USDA inspection report revealed numerous animal welfare violations at the Miami Seaquarium. Tokitae was fed rotten fish, was forced to perform dangerous tricks despite veterinary instructions to the contrary, and suffered from health conditions including eye lesions. Five dolphins and one infant sea lion also died between 2019-2020.
In December of 2021, a second USDA report revealed three additional dolphin deaths. Catalina, a Pacific white-sided dolphin died of trauma due to an altercation with Tokitae. Because of this, ownership transfer to the Dolphin Company, a Mexican-based entertainment park company, was paused by Miami Dade County until the venue addressed all of its problems.
Tokitae at Miami Seaquarium.
In March of 2022, the USDA granted the ownership license to the Dolphin Company with the requirement that Tokitae and her dolphin companion Lii were no longer forced to perform shows for entertainment. This was a historic moment for captive wildlife. Later that month, a press conference announced the launch of Friends of Lolita, a non-profit dedicated to providing the best care and quality of life for Tokitae. From May until her death, independent health evaluations were conducted to decide Tokitae’s future. In May of 2022, it was revealed she suffered from a serious infection but responded well to treatment.
One year later, on March 30, 2023, the Miami Seaquarium made a groundbreaking announcement that in the following 18-24 months they would return Tokitae to an ocean sanctuary in her home waters in Washington State. With the Miami Seaquarium’s approval, the next steps involved sign-off from federal agencies like the USDA to transport Tokitae from Florida to Washington as well as training to prepare her for her new life.
On August 18, 2023, Tokitae tragically passed away due to renal failure. It was extremely unexpected and sudden to everyone involved since the Miami Seaquarium reported only a week before that her health was “very stable.” While the world mourns the loss of Tokitae, one thing is certain. She is finally free and at rest, just not in the way we had hoped. With Tokitae gone, all orcas taken from Washington State have now died in captivity. Tokitae did not have to die alone in a concrete tank. Miami Seaquarium chose to exploit and profit off her for decades. The future can be different for thousands of others marine mammals. While she never made it home to the Salish Sea, Tokitae will continue to be remembered as fighter, and because of her, everyone will continue to fight to end the use of dolphins and whales for entertainment.
Fighting for Freedom
At World Animal Protection, we are working to make this the last generation of dolphins in captivity (don’t forget, killer whales are the largest dolphin species!). We believe in seeing dolphins in the wild where they belong, and not in captive environments where they’re unable to live natural lives. When possible, we advocate for captive dolphins to be released to seaside sanctuaries, where they can live the rest of their lives in as natural an environment as possible. Through public education, corporate engagement, and the development of responsible alternatives, we are working towards a world where dolphins and other wild animals live free from suffering.