The whale who began her life in the cold waters of the Pacific north-west only to end up in a small enclosure at the Miami Seaquarium has died. On Friday afternoon, a social media post announced that Toki – who was also known by her performing name Lolita, and the name the Lummi tribe gave her, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut – had died. She was believed to be 57.
A Facebook post from the Miami Seaquarium reported she died from what was believed to be a renal condition. “Toki was an inspiration to all who had the fortune to hear her story and especially to the Lummi nation that considered her family,” the Seaquarium post said. “Those of us who have had the honor and privilege to spend time with her will forever remember her beautiful spirit.”
Toki was born into the L-pod of resident killer whales. While still a young whale, she was captured from her mother and shipped across the country to become a performer in an aquarium. Over time, she inspired activist campaigns, songs and people to speak out on her behalf. Plans were in place for millions of dollars to fund her flight back to her home waters – to live out her days in a sea pen being fed salmon, in communication distance of her kin.
Howard Garrett, founder of the non-profit Orca Network, has been advocating for Toki’s release for decades. He says he was shattered by the news of her passing but focused on her persistence in the face of so many challenges – a small tank, at times unclean water and years of isolation. She persisted for years as the oldest orca in captivity.
Toki is survived by her L-pod relatives living in the Salish Sea, including the 95-year-old whale believed to be her mother.
In August 1970, Tokitae’s ordeal began in the calm waters of Penn Cove, Whidbey Island – a quiet island off the coast of Washington state. Men with long sticks and guns corralled a group of resident killer whales, separating mothers from their calves. At least a dozen of those whales died during the capture, and more than 50 were kept for captive display. Toki was probably only a few years old at the time of her capture. A few years later, killer whales were placed under the Endangered Species Act.
In Miami, she became a show business personality, leaping with trainers on her nose and flipping around for crowds. She lived alongside another orca named Hugo until 1980, when he died. In 2022, she retired and voices to bring her back to the Pacific north-west – and out of a tank that measured 80ft by 35ft – became louder.
In March, the owners of the Miami Seaquarium announced a “formal and binding agreement” with a group called the Friends of Lolita to begin the process of returning Tokitae to Puget Sound. A news release indicated that the joint effort is “working toward and hope the relocation will be possible in the next 18 to 24 months”.
The indigenous Lummi people believe she is a member of their extended family, and Garrett says he hopes her remains can return to the waters she once swam. He said: “Toki was my hero, to show me what courage and patience mean; my mission, to see her returned to her familiar home where she was born and raised; and my mentor, to model grace and compassion for all.”
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