WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. - As waves crashed ashore along Whidbey Island, a sense of anxiety filled the air as roughly 100 people gathered for a vigil.
Those in attendance had heavy hearts, as the news of Tokitae’s death spread just one day prior. Tokitate – a Southern Resident killer whale – died in captivity across the country in Miami, but was originally captured near Penn Cove more than 50 years ago.
Her death came as a shock to many, as her latest health updates from veterinarians had been received as positive signs that plans to bring her home could become a reality soon.
"Put simply, we just wanted to make her happy," said Howard Garrett, of Orca Network.
Garrett spent roughly 28 years trying to free Tokitae. Despite her death mere months before her hopeful arrival near the San Juan Islands, Garrett said the time was well spent – while admitting he’s in shock.
"I just can’t process it," he said. "I still can’t fathom that what I’ve devoted my life to for 28 years is not a cause anymore. That purpose is gone, but a new purpose comes – her legacy, to tell her story, to make people understand what she lived by."
That sentiment was echoed by the people gathered outside of the Langley Whale Center on Saturday night.
Michelle Seidelman, an activist that has spent years protesting Tokitae’s captivity, told FOX 13 that her legacy should be guided towards breaching the Snake River dams – a move many whale advocates believe will increase salmon runs, and in-turn bring more food to the endangered Southern Resident killer whales that are still alive in the wild.
"I’m very angry about what happened to her," said Seidelman, tears welling in her eyes. "Her life was stolen. She was taken from her family, but I do think her legacy is one of patience, love and grace – so, I’m trying to bring that energy to myself."
Whale watchers on Whidbey Island were quick to point out that while Tokitae, also known as Lolita during her performance days at the Miami Seaquarium, died while her family was swimming up and down the coast of the San Juans in what is known as a super pod – a rare sight that is believed to be a cultural/social ritual. Garrett, and others, noted: it was as if they were welcoming her home.
The Lummi Elders, who consider Tokitae – or as they call her, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, -- family released a statement through ‘Sacred Seas,’ saying "This was sudden and unexpected. Our grief is heavy. Right now, we have no words."
Talk has begun over the return of Tokitae’s remains to the Pacific Northwest, in a manner which would honor local tribes’ voices.
"Toki’s remains should return to the Pacific Northwest," said Senator Maria Cantwell in a statement this weekend. "My office has been in communication with the Administration to urge them to work with Tribes to ensure their voices are heard and ceremonial rights are protected."
FOX 13 has reached out to Eduardo Albor, the CEO of The Dolphin Company, seeking details of what the process may look like.
The Miami Seaquarium was closed on Saturday for staff following Tokitae’s death.
The marine park, under new ownership since 2022, had entered a rare agreement with a non-profit called "Friends of Toki," with plans to return Tokitae to a sea pen sanctuary near the San Juan Islands in the coming months.
It was unclear how soon a path would be cleared, given the web of permitting problems that would need to be unwound, but the man bankrolling the operation had floated plans of returning Tokitae to the Pacific Northwest by Christmas.
Those plans, sadly, were not meant to be.
Tokitae died at the age of 57. Ocean Sun, an orca that some belief could be her mother, was recently spotted with her relatives in Puget Sound. Ocean Sun, or L25, is 95-years-old. Activists often pointed to her age, and the lifespan of killer whales in the wild, as a reason to set Tokitae free – or at the very least, move her to a sea pen in her native waters.