After more than 50 years in captivity, will Tokitae ever get justice from Seaquarium?

A new USDA report finds further mistreatment of the exploited Washington orca.


An audience at the Miami Seaquarium watches Tokitae on her 40th anniversary at the aquarium.
Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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Five decades ago, in 1970, a young orca living in the waters of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington was one of six whales that were hunted and abducted in Penn Cove. All of them were destined for display in aquariums across the U.S. While the whale was still in holding at the Seattle Aquarium, veterinarian Jesse White, employed by the Miami Seaquarium, named her Tokitae, reportedly after a Coast Salish word they had seen in a Seattle gift shop that translates to “bright day, pretty colors.” Tokitae was then shipped off to the amusement park in Miami. There, she was assigned the stage name “Lolita,” given a pool smaller in depth than she would grow to in length, and made to perform for paying customers.

Orcas maintain family-oriented matriarchal societies, with many remaining by their mother’s side for their entire life. The abducted whales’ many relationships — with their families, with the salmon of the Pacific Northwest, with the Indigenous communities along the coast — were severed during this period. “To my tribe, the Lhaq’ te’mish of the Salish Sea, they are people. In our stories, they have societies and a culture similar to our own," Rena Priest, a poet and a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, wrote in High Country News last year (“A captive orca and a chance for our redemption,” April 2020). For 10 years, Tokitae had a tank mate named Hugo, but Hugo, like many orcas, could not adapt to captivity in the amusement park, where the two had to share a tank that was 80 feet long by 35 feet wide, and only 20 feet deep. Hugo died in 1980 of a brain aneurysm after constantly slamming himself into the glass walls of his home-cum-prison.

Efforts to free Tokitae have been underway since her abduction, with Indigenous nations, the Washington state government and animal rights organizations all demanding that Seaquarium oversee her return to the waters of the Salish Sea. In 2005, southern resident orcas were granted protection under the Endangered Species Act — protection that was extended specifically to Tokitae in 2015 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency housed within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While some hoped that this would expedite her return, the legal protections simply added a layer of red tape; given Tokitae’s age at this point, a cross-country transportation effort could potentially be dangerous.

Sul Ka Dub “Freddie Lane,” from the Lummi Nation, holds incense and an orca carving as he leads a ceremony in Miami, Florida, to honor a House of Tears Carvers totem pole during its journey from Washington state to Washington D.C. to raise awareness for a number of issues, including Tokitae’s capture.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In late September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report detailing how Seaquarium had failed to provide Tokitae with adequate living conditions and noting that the amusement park operators have repeatedly cut corners, endangering the health of the captive orcas.

The report found that the orca handlers repeatedly fed the whales and other animals rotting fish and cut their daily meal sizes by roughly 30 pounds, all against advice of the park’s veterinarian. Additionally, the park’s vet also informed Seaquarium staff that Tokitae had injured her jaw during one of her twice-daily shows and advised them to allow her time to heal before she had to resume performing head-first dives for tourists. As with the advice about feeding, the staff ignored the vet until the USDA stepped in. Those who advocate for Tokitae’s homecoming hope that the USDA report will spur NOAA to step in and finally act.

“It’s up to us to do what we can to at least allow her to go home and spend a lot of her days with her family.”

This summer, while the USDA was conducting its review of Seaquarium, the House of Tears carvers from Lummi Nation transported a totem pole across the country, from Washington state to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to raise awareness for a number of issues, including the protection of sacred sites. Speaking to a group of water protectors protesting the construction of the Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota, Doug James, who, along with his brother, Jewell James, was one of the lead carvers on the pole, explained that the pair had carved a section on the totem pole specifically for Tokitae. “It’s up to us to do what we can to at least allow her to go home and spend a lot of her days with her family,” James said. “The guy that’s running the Seaquarium, he’s said, ‘Well, if she leaves here, she’ll probably just die.’ Well, so what? What did you do with Hugo when he died? They threw him in the garbage dump. At least allow her the right to go back home and die with her family, so they could be with her. That’s her God-given right.”

Nick Martin is an associate editor for HCN’s Indigenous Affairs desk and a member of the Sappony Tribe of North Carolina. We welcome reader letters. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 

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