MIAMI - In recent weeks, headlines of Tokitae seemed to indicate the 56-year-old killer whale was circling the drain.
However, the group working with the Miami Seaquarium to aid in her recovery is reporting a rapid rebound. So much so that there’s even hopes to restart the conversation of whether Tokitae may return to the Pacific Northwest to live out the remainder of her life.
It’s quite the reversal, and just the latest part of a long-running saga that stretches back to 1970, when she was captured in Penn Cove.
Tokitae, later renamed ‘Lolita’ as a performer and known to Lummi Nation as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, was among several dozen Southern Resident killer whales that were rounded up and herded into nets. Several orcas were killed during the capture, of those that were shipped to aquariums around the country only Toki is alive today – those who work in the space consider her lifespan in captivity remarkable.
Pritam Singh, a co-founder of Friends of Lolita, has been working with the Miami Seaquarium to improve the orca’s health after reports surfaced that she was deathly ill in 2021.
Singh said that in his conversations with the Seaquarium—which got new owners earlier this year—have led him to believe they want to "right the wrong," that was done to Tokitae many years ago
In his mind, that means they’d be on board with returning her to her native waters in the Salish Sea.
"Our feeling is as soon as possible, but we don’t really know when that is," said Singh. "Two weeks ago, 10 days ago, she was really sick. We were frightened and had this pit in our stomach. Now she’s recovering, and we can start talking about the future again."
Charles Vinick, the group’s other co-founder, said that realistically nothing can happen overnight. The goal, instead, is to begin the conversation over what needs to be done while her health is improving so that they’re ready if the window opens.
"She isn’t going to move soon, but we have to have the conversation simultaneously while we’re bringing her back to full health," he said. "Essentially, we begin the preparations to what might be her future."
In the short term, returning her to full health includes new medicines. Vinick has been working with a group in Japan to get a medicine that the USDA has signed off on under "compassionate use."
Friends of Lolita has also made a big push to improve the water quality that Tokitae is living in, that includes chillers to keep the water cooler and new filters.
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In the long term, the group will be working to identify a location for an open sea pen that would allow her to live in her native waters while still being able to get the same care she does now. It also would put her within range of her fellow L-Pod members that she was ripped away from at the age of four.
Previous owners of the Miami Seaquarium had gone on record saying Tokitae would never be able to be moved. The current owners, The Dolphin Company, have not commented on the plans that outside groups have been working on.
The potential of her return to the Pacific Northwest may come into focus soon. Friends of Lolita is planning a stakeholder meeting where various stakeholders, including the government, would be invited to discuss what hurdles need to be cleared: permits, resources ranging from airplanes to the pen Tokitae would live in, to medicine.