Your story starts around 1966, Tokitae. From the cool, crisp sea your family has lived in for generations, your mother guides you to the surface to draw your first breath. You implicitly trust that she will always be there to help you navigate through life.
Your whole community–the Southern Resident killer whales–gathers to celebrate your birth. Excited calls ripple through the waves around you. A new life! Welcome to the family, beloved!
You are four years old. Young, sprightly. You spend your time playing and swimming. It is the only life you’ve ever known.
You live with your family, who mean everything to you. Your mother is your world. She has taught you everything you need to know to survive, from where to hunt to how to communicate, just as her mother taught her. You can’t imagine a life without her, and you plan to stay with her forever.
AUGUST 8, 1970
One day, tension spreads through your family. There are boats nearby. You don’t like boats. They are loud and interrupt meal time.
There are nets. You don’t like nets, either. You can play in the kelp, your mother taught you, but stay away from nets!
The boats won’t leave. They get closer and closer. You and your family try to get away, but the boats won’t let you.
Soon the nets get closer and closer, too. You and some of your young relatives are trapped.
Panic fills you as you realize your mother is on the other side of the nets. She is panicked, too. She frantically calls out to you, Tokitae. Terrified, you call back. She tries to reach you, but she cannot.
All you want is to be by your mother’s side again. You don’t understand what is happening. You have never been so scared in your life.
Five of your family members die this day. Four were just babies. The fifth was a mother trying to reach her calf from the other side of the nets.
The rest of you that were captured are separated. You don’t know where the others are going, but you will never see them again.
Eventually you are taken to your new home. Except it doesn’t feel like home. It’s much hotter than you’re used to, and you can’t escape the sun. The water doesn’t feel right. The food is different. There aren’t the usual sounds of the ocean.
You can’t swim far or dive deep. When you try, you are met with walls. Your real home doesn’t have walls.
You’re alone at first. You’re used to always having others like you nearby. You miss your family terribly. You’ve never been away from your mother before. You don’t know what to do without her. You’re just a child.
There are humans, though, and they give you food. They’re not the same as your family, but you think they will take care of you.
One of the humans gives you a name. Tokitae. The human says it means “Nice day, pretty colors.” Later, some other humans give you another name. Lolita. You long to hear your family call the name they gave you in your own language.
(You don’t know this, but you have yet another name–this one given by the Lummi Nation, who have spiritual ties to your community and consider you their sacred relation. The Lummi call the Southern Resident killer whales Sk’aliCh’elh. Therefore, you are Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut: “Daughter of Sk’aliCh’elh.”)
The humans say you are very courageous and gentle. Deep down, you are scared and lonely.
You learn to perform for the humans who come to see you. You get to be a star.
But you don’t want to be a star. You just want to be a regular orca with your family.
You never stop missing your family. Or the open sea you used to swim in. The fish you could catch whenever you wanted. The kelp you played with. The unwavering presence and guidance of your mother. Home.
You can hear another of your kind, but you cannot see him. He is in another set of walls. You call out to each other, and you recognize the other’s calls. You realize this means he is from your community. Family.
(You don’t know this, but he was captured in the Salish Sea–the same sea you were captured in–about a year and a half before you.)
The humans call him Hugo. You know that’s not the name his family gave him, though.
Soon you get to live with Hugo. The humans who visit love to see you and Hugo perform together.
You are thrilled to be with someone like you again. Your kind is incredibly social and intelligent. You are not meant to be alone.
MARCH 4, 1980
You are 14 years old. Hugo, about 15. You two have shared a tank for almost 10 years, living together, swimming together, performing together. Friends.
Hugo never adjusted to life in a tank as well as you did. You don’t like walls, either, certainly, but they really frustrate Hugo. Sometimes he rams his head into them.
One day, he rams his head into the wall especially hard. This time it ends badly. He stops moving. Some humans take him away. You never see him again.
You’re alone again. Devastated. The humans say you are still so courageous and gentle.
You know Hugo was courageous, too, just in a different way. He held on for 11 years of confinement, but he could only face those walls for so long. Nothing was more important to him than his freedom–no matter how it may come.
You understand why he rammed his head into the walls. That was his way of being courageous. After all, he is no longer held captive. He is at peace now. He is free.
But you are not free. You are still here. Alone.
(You don’t know this yet, but you won’t see another of your kind after Hugo dies. You don’t know your loneliness will continue for at least 40 more years.)
You are 56 years old, Tokitae. Wise, mature. Still courageous, still gentle. You have spent 52 years swimming circles within your walls.
You don’t perform any more. You’re not feeling well, so the humans are giving you lots of attention. You don’t think it’s your time, though. Not yet.
If you were in your real home, you could live for decades longer. You could have decades longer to be near your family, hear the sounds of the sea, feel the waves on your skin, sense the energy of the living ocean.
You still dream of your family, the sea, home. For over 50 years, you’ve never stopped dreaming.
We cannot begin to know what it’s like to be an orca or to live in captivity. But there is a lot on our side that you don’t know either, Tokitae.
You don’t know that your freedom was purchased for $20,000 in 1970–the equivalent of around $153,000 in 2022. To you, your freedom is priceless.
You don’t know that you are the last surviving Southern Resident killer whale in captivity. Of the more than 50 orcas captured from your community in the 1960s and ‘70s, you are the only one remaining.
You don’t know that your presumed mother is still alive in the wild, potentially in her 90s, or that we call her “Ocean Sun.” (But we don’t know what you call her.)
You don’t know that you have spent 52 of your 56 years at an oceanarium called Miami Seaquarium in Florida–nearly 3,000 miles (4,828 km) from where you were born.
You don’t know that Hugo isn’t the only cetacean that died at Miami Seaquarium. 116 dolphins have died there, too.
You don’t know that you live in the smallest orca tank in the United States—a tank so small that it violates the U.S. Animal Welfare Act, just as your lack of protection from the sun and weather does. Your tank is 13 ft (4 m) shorter than required under the Animal Welfare Act. For an orca 21 ft (6.4 m) long and weighing 7,000 lb (3,175 kg) such as yourself, the size of your tank is downright abhorrent.
You don’t know that Miami Seaquarium disregarded its veterinarian’s recommendations about your care. The veterinarian warned your trainers not to have you perform certain behaviors that could endanger your health and safety. The warnings were ignored, causing you to injure your jaw and become overexerted.
You don’t know that Miami Seaquarium was severely underfeeding most of its dolphins this year to encourage them to perform, as discovered in a recent inspection by the United States Department of Agriculture. The dolphins’ food rations were cut by up to 60% without the permission of the attending veterinarian, who took months to notice the dolphins’ resulting emaciation and aggressive behavior. You might suspect this, though, since your own food intake was previously decreased, as well–not to mention the rotten fish you were fed at times.
You don’t know the full scope of the atrocities that have occurred at Miami Seaquarium, both under its former ownership and its new owner, The Dolphin Company.
You don’t know,Toki, but we know. And because we know, we cannot be unmoved. If we know but stay silent, we are complicit.
We cannot condone you staying at Miami Seaquarium any longer than necessary. You were never meant to live in a tank, much less one so horrifically small. You were meant to swim over 100 miles (161 km) per day and dive hundreds of feet deep. You were made for the ocean. You belong to yourself, your family, your ancestors, the sea–not to us.
You have been courageous for 52 years. Now it is our turn. People all over the world are pulling for your release, and we will be steadfast in the fight for your freedom. There are demonstrations and prayer ceremonies and petitions. There are plans and meetings and fundraisers.
The Lummi Nation consider it their Xa xalh Xechnging–their sacred obligation–to bring you back to your natal waters of the Salish Sea. They are searching for an appropriate site for a seaside sanctuary to be your Xwlemi Tokw–your Lummi home. Returning you to the Salish Sea will allow you to thrive, not merely survive. It will allow you to heal.
Building a seaside sanctuary will take time, though–time that you may not have. Until your Xwlemi Tokw is ready, it is hoped that you can be transferred to a facility that is better equipped to care for you in a larger tank.
Right now, your future is uncertain. But we promise you this:
Beautiful, courageous, gentle Tokitae, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, Daughter of the Southern Residents, Daughter of the Salish Sea: You are so very beloved.
We will not let you languish in a cramped tank for the rest of your days. We will not let you become the 118th cetacean to die at Miami Seaquarium.
That is not your final chapter. That is not how your story will end.
Written for Toki by Elizabeth Hartman
Aguirre, L. [@louisaguirre]. (2022, March 3). According to new license, The Dolphin Company will no longer be able to post any social media images of Toki [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/LOUISAGUIRRE/status/1499526047230042114/photo/1
Feldman, D. (2019, July 10). New doc ‘Long Gone Wild’ details how orcas suffer in captivity, offers hope with seaside sanctuary project. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danafeldman/2019/07/10/new-doc-long-gone-wild-details-how-orcas-suffer-in-captivity-offers-hope-with-seaside-sanctuary-project/?sh=2d70fe214069
Inherently Wild. (n.d.). Tokitae’s gallery. https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/
Orca Network. (n.d.). The capture. https://www.orcanetwork.org/tokitaesstory/blog-post-title-two-6scey
Orca Network. (n.d.). It’s time for Tokitae to return home. https://www.orcanetwork.org/retire-lolita
Orca Network. (n.d.). Tokitae’s life now. https://www.orcanetwork.org/tokitaesstory/blog-post-title-three-tslkw
Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project. (n.d.). Miami Seaquarium. https://www.dolphinproject.com/take-action/miami-seaquarium/
Sacred Sea. (n.d.). Bringing Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to her Xwlemi Tokw. https://sacredsea.org/xwlemi-tokw/
Sands, C. (2022, August 2). One dolphin’s story – Hugo. Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project. https://www.dolphinproject.com/blog/one-dolphins-story-hugo/
Save Lolita. (n.d.). Help fight for her freedom. https://www.savelolita.org/
Save Lolita. (n.d.). Photo of Lolita’s tank. https://www.savelolita.org/tank-photo
Tierney, L. (2010). Detailed discussion of laws concerning orcas in captivity. Michigan State University College of Law Animal Legal & Historical Center. https://www.animallaw.info/article/detailed-discussion-laws-concerning-orcas-captivity
United States Department of Agriculture. (2019). Animal Welfare Act and animal welfare regulations. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/downloads/bluebook-ac-awa.pdf
The Whale Sanctuary Project. (n.d.). Lolita: Fame and misfortune. https://whalesanctuaryproject.org/whales/lolita-fame-misfortune/