After over 50 years in captivity, Tokitae the orca is finally going home to the sea. The killer whale, who was formerly known as Lolita, will be relocated thanks to the work of animals rights advocates, Indigenous leaders, and non-profit organizations who wish to see this creature live in peace for the rest of her days.
Tokitae lives at the Miami Seaquarium in what is considered the smallest whale enclosure in North America. Since she is thought to be about 57 years old, the orca is also widely believed to be the oldest living orca in captivity. Tokitae's life away from home began in 1970, when she was taken from Penn Cove, off the coast of Washington State. It is believed that she was about four years old when that happened. According to The Guardian, Tokitae's relatives are still alive, including the 90-year-old orca believed to be her mother.
The project to have Tokitae freed was announced at a joint press conference featuring members of the Miami Seaquarium; The Dolphin Company, the business that owns the park; Friends of Toki, a non-profit that has pushed for the whale's freedom and has welfare checks done on her every month; Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava; and philanthropist Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, who has provided financial support to the relocation project. “Today, March 30th, for the first time ever, a private company with marine mammals under human care, and a non-profit animal welfare organization, executed a binding agreement with one goal—return the beloved Lolita to her home waters,” the Seaquarium wrote.
Fortunately, Tokitae's health has improved and remained steady over the last few months after a round of infections she suffered due to the size of her enclosure, which is what eventually led her to be pulled from display in 2022.
Tokitae is a southern resident orca, a group that was added to the endangered species list in 2005. According to NBC News, as of August the population was of about 70 orcas, after they peaked at 97 in 1996 before experiencing a decline.
Some advocates have raised questions about how the whale's health could be affected by the move, or whether she would be able to fend for herself in the wild, but the dedicated relocation process will address those issues. The target is to move her in 18 to 24 months, as she has to be re-trained to hunt and the logistics of the physical cross-country move have yet to be determined.
“To all of you who care, we want to thank you for your care and concern of Toki, the most important thing is Toki's long-term wellbeing, and together, guided by the experts, we will continue to do what's best for her,” said Mayor Cava. As for Irsay, he says he knows she wants to get to free waters. “She’s lived this long to have this opportunity.”