Lummi Tribal members Ellie Kinley (left) and Raynell Morris, president and vice president of the non-profit Sacred Lands Conservancy known as Sacred Sea, lead a prayer for the repatriation of southern resident orca Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut — who has lived and performed at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years — to her home waters of the Salish Sea at a gathering March 20, at Cherry Point. (The Bellingham Herald)

Lummi Tribal members Ellie Kinley (left) and Raynell Morris, president and vice president of the non-profit Sacred Lands Conservancy known as Sacred Sea, lead a prayer for the repatriation of southern resident orca Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut — who has lived and performed at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years — to her home waters of the Salish Sea at a gathering March 20, at Cherry Point. (The Bellingham Herald)

Editorial: What it will require to bring Tokitae home

Bringing home the last captive orca requires expanded efforts to restore the killer whales’ habitat.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Recent reports have buoyed hopes that Tokitae, a Southern Resident orca captured from Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove in 1970 and forced to perform at a marine amusement park for more than 50 years, could eventually be returned to her Salish Sea home waters.

The orca, now thought to be about 57, is known by three names. Shortly after her capture, she was given the name Tokitae, a name 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.” 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.

The last captive: Tokitae’s status as the last surviving orca whale in captivity has animated aspirations to return her to the Salish Sea, where L pod — and her mother, Ocean Sun, now in her early 90s — still swim.

Campaigns to bring the whale home have been undertaken off and on since the mid-1990s, but were repeatedly blocked by the Seaquarium’s owner until his death in 2017 and the sale of the amusement park to a new owner. As a condition of the aquarium’s license with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the new owner agreed to end the whale’s public performances and display, and has since signed an agreement with a group called Friends of Toki to begin the process of returning Tokitae to the Salish Sea.

The Lummi Nation, working with partners, has released a plan to return Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to the waters around the San Juan Islands, 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 be where “her home waters will embrace her,” a plan website details.

The plan is to return the whale by plane from her current 80-by-35-by 20-foot tank to her new home in the San Juans. The timeline for the whale’s return has been estimated from six months to as long as two years, though many hurdles remain, not the least of which is finding a plane large enough to transport a 5,000-pound whale. Previous transports of whales have relied on the U.S. Department of Defense, such as the flight of Keiko, star of “Free Willy” movies, in 1998 from Newport, Ore., to waters off Iceland, using an U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III.

But even before Tokitae’s flight can be booked, other questions remain.

Risks in her return: Complicating Tokitae’s return is her health, that while reportedly improving, was badly affected by the inadequate size of her pool and the care she received from her previous owner. A 2021 USDA report of Tokitae’s health 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 continue performing against a veterinarian’s instructions. As well there are concerns about pathogens and diseases that Tokitae might still carry.

Ultimately, the plan for Tokitae’s move and new home must earn approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as the USDA and National Marine Fisheries Service. Since 2013, NOAA has considered Tokitae as an “endangered” member of the Southern Resident orca population, from which she was taken, thus deserving of Endangered Species Act protection. According to a recent update of a NOAA webpage dedicated to Tokitae, the agency has yet to receive a plan for her transportation and care.

As well, federal agencies would have to evaluate the plan as well as the health of Tokitae, herself, as to her potential for surviving the move and for possible harm to other orcas and marine mammals. NOAA says Tokitae’s survival during a move is uncertain because of her age and her long-term medical needs. And beyond risks to her health, agencies would have to evaluate risks from her placement in a net pen or release into the wild to other whales because of the possibility of disease transmission, social disruption and behaviors learned in captivity that could be transferred to other whales.

“These risks, should any marine mammal be proposed for relocation to a net pen or released in the Pacific Northwest, raise concerns about potential harm to the endangered Southern Resident population,” the NOAA report says. Since the 1990s, the three pods — J, K and L — of Southern Residents have struggled to build their populations above the current number of 74 whales, who remain stressed by depleted runs of salmon, pollution and noise from vessel traffic.

Past experience offers some insight into what’s possible for Tokitae. Even if returned to her home waters, the best option may be for her to remain in relative captivity in a net pen.

Keiko, the movie star, was a poor candidate for release into the wild, the NOAA report says, because, like Tokitae, he spent years in captivity and away from other orcas, and depended on human care and feeding. Keiko was rehabilitated in a net pen in Oregon before his move and eventual released off Iceland, but was unable to integrate with other killer whales and lived only a year past his release.

Luna, a Southern Resident orca and member of the same pod from which Tokitae was taken decades before, while never kept in captivity, became separated from his pod and was seen living alone in British Columbia’s Nootka Sound in 2001. Luna began following fishing boats and other vessels and grew accustomed to human contact. Attempts were made to reunite Luna with his pod, but the whale died in 2006, struck by a tug boat’s propeller.

What’s owed: There’s a lasting and immense debt to be paid to the Salish Sea’s Southern Resident orcas for the 1970 roundup in Penn Cove that killed at least a dozen killer whales and captured more than 50 others for sale, captivity and forced performance. That roundup vastly depleted the L pod’s numbers and forever diminished the pod’s biological diversity.

Returning Tokitae — the last surviving captive Southern Resident — to her home waters would be just compensation toward that debt.

Yet, Tokitae’s return won’t satisfy that debt and won’t end our responsibility to her, her pod or the Salish Sea’s resident and transient orcas.

We can hope Tokitae, like her mother, has decades left ahead of her, even if that’s spent in semi-confinement in a net pen. Continued support will be necessary, even after raising and spending the estimated $20 million it will take to return her to the Salish Sea. And once’ Tokitae’s care is secured, the responsibility remains to expand efforts to restore the health of the habitat — from stream to river to estuary to sea — that produce the salmon that support the pods of orcas who live and transit West Coast waters.

It will mean little to bring home the last captive orca, if that home is not fit for her or her family.

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