By The Herald Editorial Board
Now more than 50 years after her violent capture — along with fellow pod members — from the waters of Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove in August of 1970, the last living southern resident killer whale in captivity may have a chance to leave a small concrete pool at a southern Florida aquarium and return to her home waters of the Salish Sea.
It’s a long shot and one that concerns not only the individual whale’s health but that of her long-lost family pod and other orcas and marine mammals already facing threats to their survival because of depleted runs of chinook salmon, water pollution and vessel traffic and marine noise.
The orca, now thought to be about 56, is known by three names. Shortly after her capture, she was given the name Tokitae, a name she shares with a Washington state ferry and is said to mean “nice day, pretty colors” in a Coast Salish language. But since the first days of her display and performances at Miami Seaquarium, she has been widely known as “Lolita,” a smirking reference to the Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name because the young female orca was paired at the time with a much older male orca.
But to the Lummi Nation, the Whatcom County-based tribal nation that is working with others to secure her return, the whale’s name is Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (pronounced SKA-li CHUKH-teNOT), “Sk’aliCh’elh” for the Whidbey Island cove where she was captured and “tenaut,” meaning a female relative.
Campaigns to bring the whale home have been undertaken off and on since the mid-1990s, initially involving major political, philanthropic and environmental figures, including Gov. Mike Lowry, Secretary of State Ralph Munro, entrepreneur Craig McCaw and Northwest whale authorities and half-brothers Ken Balcomb and Howard Garrett.
But the proposals were rebuffed by Seaquarium’s owner, Arthur Hertz, with Hertz telling a member of the group, “I don’t want these hippies stealing my whale,” according to a 2021 article by the Palm Beach Post that detailed the campaign.
Hertz died in 2017, and Miami Seaquarium, recently purchased by a new owner, announced last week that as a condition of its license with the U.S. Department of Agriculture it would end the whale’s public performances and would no longer put the whale — and a dolphin that shares its small pool, only 80 feet at its widest — on public display.
The decision to end the whale’s performance career has provided a boost to the Lummi Nation’s hopes to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home, The Seattle Times reported last week.
Transporting the whale won’t be the biggest hurdle. Other efforts to return orcas and other marine mammals into their native habitat have seen some success. Most famously, Keiko, who was featured in the 1993 movie, “Free Willy” — after living his life performing in aquariums in Canada and Mexico — was returned to the waters near Iceland where he was captured in 1979. Keiko was rehabilitated and released in 2002 and was able to hunt and feed himself but kept his distance from other orcas and died of pneumonia in 2003.
More recently, 10 orcas and 87 beluga whales, captured by Russian fishing companies for sale to aquariums, were removed from net pens where they had been kept for about a year and returned by truck and barge hundreds of miles to where they had been captured and set free in Russian waters near its border with North Korea in 2019.
But the path home for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is more uncertain, primarily because of her health. And her release into the wild — because of her age, her health and more than 50 years of being fed and cared for by humans — is not being entertained by anyone. Her best option is seen as a return to home waters, but under the care of humans. But even that may be too much to hope.
A September report by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found that the whale had been fed rotting fish, was being fed less than was typical, had injured her lower jaw during a jump and was made to perform jumps against a veterinarian’s instructions. As well there are concerns about pathogens and diseases that the whale might still carry.
The Lummi Nation, working with partners, has released a plan to return Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to the waters around the San Juan Islands, with a location to be identified, housing her in a large net-pen complex that would allow her far greater space to swim and dive, hear familiar sounds from the sea and sky and where “her home waters will embrace her,” a plan website details.
The plan includes evaluation of her physical and behavioral condition at the Miami aquarium, monitoring of her health before, during and after the journey, and safeguards and responses regarding her health and the health of other marine life.
Federal authorities including the USDA and the National Marine Fisheries Service will have final say on any plan that would allow Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to return and the possibility of contact and potential of disease spread to other orcas and marine wildlife, as was detailed in a recent two-part story by Daily Kos.
The Lummi Nation plan will have to ensure that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut would pose no risk of disease transmission to other whales, whale scientist Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, told Daily Kos.
“I still think that NMFS would come up with any sort of excuse not to allow it, because it just freaks them out to think that there could be something that could happen and that the Southern Residents are wiped out in a huge disease outbreak because they put Typhoid Mary in the middle of them,” she said.
The protection of the remaining 74 Southern Resident orcas should be paramount. Yet, there is every reason to investigate the possibility of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s return.
Northwesterns often are guilty of anthropomorphizing our wildlife, bestowing human emotions and desires on them, especially orcas.
But this whale, the last of some 270 that were rounded up in Salish Sea waters around Washington state and British Columbia — including 12 that died during capture and more than 50 that were sent to aquariums — deserves the chance to return to the waters of her birth.
Even if not to swim free, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut should be brought back to where her pod and family — including L25, Ocean Sun, the 93-year-old matriach of L pod who is believed to be her mother — are present.