This 2015 photo shows Marian Prio (center) wearing an Orca costume as she and others protest against Lolita the orca’s decades-long captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, file)

This 2015 photo shows Marian Prio (center) wearing an Orca costume as she and others protest against Lolita the orca’s decades-long captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, file)

Online event marks 50th anniversary of Whidbey orca’s capture

A campaign to return the orca to the Salish Sea began 25 years ago, spurred by the 1993 film “Free Willy.”

By Jacqueline Allison / Skagit Valley Herald

On Aug. 8, 1970, in Penn Cove on Whidbey Island, the orca whale Lolita, or Tokitae, was taken from her family and sold to the Miami Seaquarium, where she has lived in captivity for 50 years.

On Saturday — the 50th anniversary of the whale’s capture — people throughout the world came together online to honor Tokitae through words, songs, prayer, film and ceremony, and call for her return home.

“There is still time to bring her home,” said Susan Berta, a co-founder of the Orca Network, which organized the event.

Tokitae, or “Toki” for short, is the last survivor of 45 Southern Resident orcas captured between 1965 and 1973 for display in marine parks, according to the Orca Network.

The population of salmon-eating Southern Resident orcas is now at just 73 members, including Tokitae, according to the Center for Whale Research.

A member of L pod, one of three distinct Southern Resident orca groups, Tokitae was about 4 years old when she was captured, said Howard Garrett, also a co-founder of the Orca Network.

“It is momentous and extraordinary that she is alive and doing quite well,” he said.

Garrett said Tokitae likely remembers the beginning years of her life and would be capable of returning to her native waters, though she would need rehabilitation. There is a proposal to bring the whale to a pen near Orcas Island to acclimate her to catching fish again.

The campaign to return the orca to the Salish Sea began 25 years ago, spurred by the 1993 film “Free Willy,” Garrett said.

Most recently, members of the Lummi Nation have led the fight to bring home Tokitae.

Tribal members Raynell Morris and Ellie Kinley said they sent a letter of intent last summer to sue the Miami Seaquarium if it would not work on a plan to release the orca.

In a livestreamed ceremony from a beach Saturday, Lummi tribal members sang, played instruments and placed an offering of a cedar wreath into the water.

“The Lord and creator has made (orcas) to roam free in these waters. It’s not man’s destiny to dominate over them as spiritual beings as they are,” said Doug James, of the Lummi Nation.

Another group held a livestreamed ceremony from a Miami beach.

In a video recorded on the shores of Guemes Island, Samish Indian Nation members Rosie Cayou-James and Bill Bailey honored Tokitae with a ceremony and offering placed in the water.

“We love our orcas,” Cayou-James said. “My dad was born on Orcas Island, his only friends were the orcas. This year would be dad’s dream come true if we can just bring her home. We will get her home … We want to reunite her spirit with the spirits of the sea.”

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