In the Salish Sea during the 1960's an Orca was born to a community known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales. This whale would be captured in 1970 and transported across the continent to the Miami Seaquarium, where she would remain for 53 years.

To the indigenous people of the Lummi nation, she is known as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. To the attendees of the Miami Seaquarium, she was initially known as Tokitae, and later Lolita. In this article you will learn about her story, and be pointed to resources to learn further about any aspect of it you would like to learn more about.

For ease of reading I will refer to Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut as Toki for the extent of this article.


The Southern Resident Killer Whales are a community of Orcas that have occupied the coastal waters of present-day Washington and British Columbia for tens of thousands of years. This is a fish-eating endangered community that has, in the recent history, numbered anywhere between 74-140 individuals.

In 1970, we were not aware that this population existed independently of other Orcas in the area, let alone their numbers. By this time the captive Orca industry had taken the world by storm with companies like SeaWorld and Sealand of the Pacific promoting shows with this recently beloved species (just 5 years prior it was not uncommon for fishermen, and coastal European residents alike to shoot at Orcas due to a wide-spread distain for the animals).


Photograph courtesy of: Wallie V. Funk Photographs, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham WA 98225-9123

With a high demand for Orcas in marine parks across the world, companies like Namu Inc. were in the business of capturing and supplying Orcas to these companies.

On August 8, 1970, Namu Inc. had rounded up 80 Orcas in Penn Cove on Whidbey Island, among them was Toki. They had unknowingly captured nearly if not the entire population of Southern Residents. This capture was the largest in the history of the Salish Sea.

Of the 80 whales corralled, five died while the whales were corralled, and seven were taken and sold to marine parks around the world (one of which was Toki to Miami Seaquarium).

Penn Cove Capture: Wallie Funk

Four of the five that died during this capture were cut open and weighed down to keep their deaths from the public; however, three were discovered washed on shore a few months after. This instance was one used by the state of Washington to make a ruling against the capture of Orcas along their coastline in 1976. If you would like to learn more about the capture of Orcas and the advent of Orca research and conservation, look to the book Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Oceans Greatest Predator by Jason Colby for the most comprehensive account of this story.

Toki arrived at the Miami Seaquarium on September 24, 1970 and joined another whale, Hugo, at the Miami Seaquarium.

Toki and Hugo (Credit: unknown)

Life at Miami Seaquarium


The photo above shows Toki and Hugo at the Orca tank. However, when Toki first arrived she was placed in the newly built Orca tank while Hugo remained in the "celebrity pool," now the manatee pool where he had lived since his capture in 1968. The two were initially separated due to concern that they would fight.

What the park, and the public, didn't realize was Hugo was also one of the Southern Resident Orcas. Once Toki arrived at the park, the two began vocalizing with each other and Hugo was transfered to the newly built Orca tank to join Toki not long after.

The two whales got along wonderfully, and would preform together and separate for the following 10 years. Hugo did have a propensity to ram his head into the sides of the tank, and in 1980 after a particularly bad incident he sadly passed due to a brain aneurism.


By 1980, researchers in the Salish Sea had been at work for a decade trying to provide an amount of Orcas that inhabited the areas. In 1982, Michael Bigg (the father of wild Orca research) published a paper called An Assessment of Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca) Stocks off of Vancouver Island, British Columbia denoting the populations of Orcas that he and many other researchers had been following. This is one of the first published references to the Southern Resident population of Killer Whales.

Title of the article

I mentioned earlier that the Southern Resident Orcas have inhabited the Salish sea for tens of thousands of years. I do want to clarify that they have not solely inhabited these waters for all of that time, they have shared it with a community known as Bigg's Orcas, or Transient Killer Whales. Now the reason to mention this distinction is that these two populations have been genetically separate for over a 100,000 years. They have completely different genetic structures, diet, social behaviors and most importantly for the purposes of this article, dialects.

Illustration by Mark Garrison

The Southern Resident community has a unique set of acoustic calls from all other populations of Orcas, including those they share waters with. This struck the curiosity of Ken Balcomb, as he wondered whether Toki would be able to recognize her family's unique calls, even after all these years. So he brought the idea to the Miami Seaquarium of playing the sounds of the Southern Residents to Toki in 1987, and while the trainers were excited by the idea, management shut down the idea.

The 1980's Toki was also diagnosed with pterygium in her right eye. This condition was due to the lack of shade in her tank (which was never addressed) and I believe she has been dealing with this condition for all time thereafter.


In 1993 the blockbuster Free Willy was released, and after an incredible amount of public pressure, and money, the star of the film, Keiko, was as well. The success of Keiko's release is extremely contested among experts, and if you would like to learn more about his story you can read Death at SeaWorld by Mark Simmons.

Free Willy movie poster (1993)

I bring up Free Willy because Warner Bros originally reached out to the Miami Seaquarium about having Toki star in the film, as well as SeaWorld for their Orcas. SeaWorld's response was that they would only accept the offer if the end of the movie was that the whale was moved to a larger tank rather than freed. The filmmakers didn't take that offer. (Freeing Keiko, pg. 27)

After Keiko was freed in Norwegian waters and concern was rising about his affinity towards humans, the Miami Seaquarium proposed to re-capture him and transfer him to the park as a partner for Lolita. That proposal was also not accepted.

Keiko with Havard Neshaug (not a trainer) in Norway

In 1992, Ken Balcomb also tried to re-propose playing the calls of the Southern Residents to Toki as part of a show this time, and on a different occasion proposed to purchase Lolita from them after Hurricane Andrew which caused six Sea Lions to die from electrocution. His proposals, unsurprisingly, were not accepted.

Four years later, the world would watch Toki lean in to listen to the calls of her family, recorded by Ken, played to her by Keith Henderson on Dateline. This happened in 1996, 26 years after she was captured, and 16 years since she shared a tank with Hugo.

Howard Garrett's campaign in the following years would shift into a larger focus of the population of Southern Residents as the instances effecting the wild population were becoming more apparent. This was the beginning of Orca Network.

It is also worth noting that in 1999 the US Department of Agriculture, who is in charge of regulating the exhibition of captive animals, writes a letter to the Miami Seaquarium at this time stating “Lolita’s habitat has been certified by the USDA as ‘… meets the intent and the letter of the law with regard to space requirements for orcas.’ The USDA goes on to say that her habitat ‘far exceeds the minimum requirements established by the AWA (Animal Welfare Act) regulations.’” This will change in the following years.


In 2003, a film came out by Rattle The Cage Productions called "Lolita: Slave to Entertainment" that articled much of her story mentioned here. It brings up many of the problems with the facility and highlights those fighting for her release during this decade. You can watch the full film below.

The first instance I found of someone related to the Miami Seaquarium speaking on the potential of her release was Andrew Herts, the son of Arthur Hertz who was the president of the Miami Seaquarium's holding company, who said: "She's a member of our family, and we're not going to experiment with her just for a vocal minority."

Andrew Herts

While Toki's situation seemed very much stagnant during this time, in 2005 the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration declared the Southern Residents endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This set many precedences for conservation efforts focused towards the wild populations recovery, however this ruling did NOT include Toki, or any other captive Orcas.


Fast forward to 2013, PETA on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Orca Network, and several individuals petitioned the Secretary of Interior or Secretary of Commerce to list Toki as part of the endangered Southern Resident population. The petition was submitted on January 25, 2013, and on April 29, 2013 NOAA presented their findings about the petition where they said NOAA "(found) the biological information regarding Lolita's genetic heritage and consideration of captive individuals under the ESA meets (the) standard, based on the information presented and referenced in the petition, as well as all other information readily available in our files."

NOAA seal: referenced information found here

Less than a year later on January 27, 2015 (my birthday funny enough), NOAA published a proposal to remove the exclusion of captive whales from the ESA listing, and just over a year later on February 10, 2015 the final ruling "found that Tokitae’s captive status, in and of itself, did not preclude her listing under the ESA."

This ruling offered Toki the follwing protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA):

  1. “Take” of the species, which means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct
  2. Delivering, receiving, carrying, transporting, or shipping in interstate or foreign commerce, in the course of a commercial activity
  3. Sale or offer for sale in interstate or foreign commerce

This ruling provided hope for these organizations to litigate against the Miami Seaquarium. Later in 2015 the Animal Legal Defense Fund in a coalition with PETA and Orca Network filed a federal lawsuit against the Miami Seaquarium, alleging that the conditions of Toki's tank were in violation of the federal ESA. The courts issued the Miami Seaquarium a list of faults, obligations and liabilities in 2016 and a panel of judges affirmed this hearing in 2018 basically saying nothing was going to happen.

Dr. Ingrid Visser created a report for this case based on her findings about Toki through primary viewing and behavioral analysis as well as analyzing previous literature.

The the plaintiffs (Animal Legal Defense Fund and constituents) filed for a retrial, however they were denied. Mind you, in 2017 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) did another inspection of the facility and used the incredibly opaque language and reasoning to try and circumvent the fact that the tank wasn't up to code per the Animal Welfare Act. This included statements like:

  • "may not meet all space requirements defined by the agency’s [Animal Welfare Act] regulations"
  • "Foreign objects could be dropped into the enclosure, or one of the animals could injure a spectator"
Other examples of this report that were potently avoidant. Read the full article here

Fast forward to 2018, the Lummi Coast Salish Indigenous nation organized a cross-country journey to bring awareness to Toki's story and call for her release back into the Salish Sea. The nation had plans to raise funds for her release expenses and was working to purchase land in Washington to erect a sea-pen.

A totem made by the Lummi Nation in Washington State was taken to the Miami Seaquarium as part of a bid to release the killer whale known as Lolita or Tokitae. (Lummi Nation)

At this time, some marine mammal experts from UBC and NOAA were voicing their concerns with her candidacy for release because of the time that she's spent in captivity, the examples of other wild Orcas who became to friendly with humans, and potential pathogens from the wild that at this point may pose challenges to her health. Of course, other researchers like Howard Garrett, Ken Balcomb, Lori Marino, Charles Vinick, and Naomi Rose see merit in the plans for returning Toki back to her home waters.

Proposals for her return include either full scale release or reintroduction via sea pen. A sea-pen has been determined across experts as the most viable option due to the history of Orcas who've had a propensity to interact with humans such as Luna, and Keiko. For those who don't know, Luna was an Orca who was separated from her pod in the wild and would consistently interact with people on boats, and one day she was sadly struck by a tug boat. You can read her story in the book The Lost Whale by Michael Parfit or see the feature film Saving Luna.

Luna and a pup, Photo by: Debra Brash

Besides the public outcry for Toki's release, the park was also receiving scrutiny for the size of Toki's tank due to government regulations on the tank size for Killer Whales.


Within the past three years plans have really come together to outline what it would look like to return Toki to her home waters. The organization Sacred Sea laid out the bones of the proposal here in conjuction with the Whale Sanctuary Project.

Sacred Sea's sea-pen animated graphic: see video here

The Lummi nation and Sacred Sea had many events and community centered actions geared towards Toki during this time which included ceremonies like the one you see below.

Other protests around the Miami Seaquarium also were taking place over the last decade. These protests and calls for release of Toki and were organized by groups like PETA, Urgent Seas, and other organizations focused explicitly on Toki like Save Lolita.

With regard to the park itself, the Miami Seaquarium was owned and operated by Palace Entertainment until August of 2021 when the Dolphin Company reached an agreement to take over the park. This agreement was subject to various permits and licenses that the park would receive in the following year.

On March 2, 2022 the USDA does an inspection on the park to renew its license and allow Palace to transfer ownership to the Dolphin Company, but there's a catch. The license includes the exhibition of every animal in the park EXCEPT Toki and the pacific white sided dolphin in the whale stadium.

This exclusion means that if the Miami Seaquarium intends to exhibit Toki, they need to apply for a new license and be compliant with USDA standards

Now. What I am unsure of is how this factors into life insurance on Toki. What I am sure of, is that the Miami Seaquarium can not make money off of Lolita as of March 2, 2022.

Two days after this license is issued, the Dolphin Company acquires the Miami Seaquarium completely. With this acquisition, the owner of the Dolphin Company, Eduardo Albor, as well as Miami-Dade County Mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, welcomed the request of independent veterinarians to assess Toki’s health and bring transparency to her condition, which grew into a full collaboration between Friends of Toki and The Dolphin Company.

The collaboration is well explained on Friend's of Toki's website where they write "With investments by Friends of Toki founder Pritam Singh of over $1 million and her care team, enrichment specialists, veterinarians and support team numbering more than 15 people, this collaboration now encompasses all aspects of Toki’s quality of life including her life support systems and water quality, her enrichment program, her medical care, and the animal care staff working with her daily."

If you are inclined to read the updates, you can find them here

Without going into detail about each one, there is mention in these updates about the team caring for a long standing infection Toki had, a lesion on her lung, improving the water quality (both filtration and temperature), and towards the end mentions various problems with her gut. It also describes various behavioral instances with regard to her candidacy for release into a sea-pen... which I will discuss next.

On March 30, 2023 the Dolphin Company did something nobody expected and announced an agreement with Friends of Toki with the goal of returning Toki to her home waters.

Tweet from The Dolphin Company March 30, 2023

Her transfer was going to be funded by Jim Arisay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts american football team, and was estimated to be anywhere between $15 and $20 million and would involve creating a sequestered area, with netting, in the ocean off the coast of Washington and moving Lolita there along with two dolphins that currently live with the orca in captivity.

The parent company's owner, Eduardo Albor, stated that "he was personally dedicated to releasing the orca after taking his daughter to one of Lolita's performances. (She) told him that she could not stay to watch the show because Lolita's tank was so small." Later in the article I am pulling from, they also talk about Albor saying that finding a better future for Toki was part of his drive to acquire the Miami Seaquarium.

Above is the press conference held by Friends of Toki with Priam Singh, Jim Irsay, Charles Vinik and more on March 30th.

This news and agreement was celebrated around the world during the following months. Of course, there were others who voiced concern about her condition during the transfer and in the open ocean both because of stress, and a fear of her being vulnerable to pathogens and other diseases. Concern for her release was held by former trainers, marine mammal experts, and even NOAA.

NOAA also stated that it is uncertain whether Toki would be able to move to a net pen or release based on her time in captivity, long term medical needs, and potential risks like disease, ability to forage, and potential disruption of the wild population of Southern Residents.

I would also like to note that while the Dolphin Company, Miami Seaquarium and Friends of Toki were acting with the goal of reintroducing Toki to her home waters, none of these organizations submitted a removal proposal or request from NOAA.

NOAA's website on Southern Residents

In order to capture, transport, release an Orca or alter, build or remove an active or proposed animal enclosure, the proprietary entity of the animal must submit a detailed request to the NOAA with their plans.

That all being said, in 2021 the whale pool that Toki resided in was condemned. In 2022, the Fire Marshal and Building Inspector cited all of the code violations that needed to be fixed. Protocol for a deadline being reached without compliance or extension is forced eviction. Shortly after, the Miami Seaquarium asked for an extension and was approved. On April 17, 2023 this extension was withdrawn, and the Miami Seaquarium was given 120 days to fix the problem which took effect April 19, 2023.

121 days later, on August 18th 2023 we found out about Toki's passing.

Facebook post by Miami Seaquarium about Toki's passing

The initial report for her cause of death is believed to be a renal condition (failure of the kidneys), however a full necropsy will determine any further causes of death. The University of Georgia will be presiding over the necropsy, per an agreement that happened a while ago says Pritam Singh.

Owner of the Dolphin Company assuring the public on Twitter that he will bring her remains back to the Salish Sea

Her remains have been cremated, and are due for transport to the Lummi nation in Washington. The date is currently undetermined, however representatives from the nation are on their way to the University of Georgia to beat drums following her cremation whereafter elder Raynell Morris will fly back with her remains. As of right now there is no new news of the cause of her death. When I am aware of more information, I will update them here.

The Lummi nation, Toki's advocates, Toki's caretakers, and everyone who has come to learn her story is in mourning right now. Especially so soon after, especially with hope for a different ending to her story. Please be kind to each other during this time of grief, and let us come together to make a better life for the Southern Residents, and Orcas around the world.

To learn about the plight of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, I would recommend you watch the documentary Coextinction. On their website you can find avenues to take action against the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Snake River Dams, Fish Farms, and Indigenous Rights, Sovereignty and Stewardship.

To learn more about the various wild populations of Orcas and those who research them, look to Orcas of the World, a nearly comprehensive report about global populations of Orcas that is currently being updated. You can also follow Emma Luck, the Northern Naturalist, on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter as she is curating a the most comprehensive collection of educational infographics and posts about Orcas that has ever been created.

To learn more about captive Orcas, past and present, you can learn more at Inherently Wild and Killer Whale Wiki.

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

I and many others have never met Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, but we know her story and carry it in our hearts.

For those who love Orcas, we understand that they constantly surprise us, and Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut and the Southern Residents are no different.

I would like to end with the words of Emma Luck, who describes the feeling that these animals inspire in us all too well in her tribute to Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.

Post from Emma Luck

"Last night, a near-superpod gathering of the southern residents occurred in the Salish Sea, their traditional and historic home.

Over 3,000 miles away, in a dilapidated tank in Miami, their relative, Tokitae, was in the final hours of her life.

It has been noted in recent years that large gatherings of the southern residents tend to coincide with births or deaths in the population.

I know the whales didn’t know. I know that all but one of the southern residents was born after Tokitae was taken away from her birthplace and sent off to live a life of near complete isolation from her own kind solely for human entertainment. As a scientist, I know the southern residents could not have possibly known she was dying.

And yet, I still have to wonder. Stranger things have happened.

Goodbye Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut. I hope your relatives, both whale and human, are there to greet you on the other side.

My deepest condolences to the Lummi Nation—your relative will not be forgotten."