The Race to Free Washington’s Last Orca in Captivity

More than 80 orcas were rounded up in August 1970 in Penn Cove located off Whidbey Island in Washington state. Six baby whales were sold to marine parks.

THE WHALES KNEW speedboats were after them again. In 1970, about 100 orcas had convened in the cold waters off the islands north of Seattle for their annual mid-summer’s romp. Known as a “superpod,” members of all three southern resident lineages line up in a somewhat mysterious greeting that conjures both traditional Native potlatches and awkward middle school dances. Then they go off. They belly flop, back dive, and breach. They feast on Chinook salmon. Sometimes, yes, they mate. But in early August of 1970, the propulsive whir of a motor in the water crashed the party.

For years crews had chased orcas around the shards of land in the Salish Sea. (Puget Sound) Some whales had bullet holes in their skin from fishermen who viewed the mysterious “blackfish” as competition. Others had been captured by an operation called Namu Inc. Its leaders, Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry, sought young calves—smaller, and thus easier to sell and transport to oceanariums around the world.

ONLY ONE ORCA has ever been held in captivity for years and released back into the wild. It’s the one you know. Keiko, the star of the 1993 box office hit Free Willy, returned to an Iceland bay in 1998 following an uproar over his treatment at a Mexico City amusement park. For the next few years, he swam in a netted sea pen and on boat-guided ocean “walks” to reacclimate. His health improved, and he could soon hunt for food and initiate contact with other whales. In 2002, after he was liberated, his 1,000-mile journey to Norway drew international media attention and buoyed fans. But Keiko never could fully integrate with a pod. A little over a year later, he beached himself, dying of pneumonia.


MIAMI — (AP) — An unlikely coalition of a theme park owner, animal rights group and NFL owner-philanthropist announced Thursday that a plan is in place to return Lolita, (also known as Tokitae,) — an orca that has lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years — to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest.


Thursday, the owners of the Miami Seaquarium announced a “formal and binding agreement” with Friends of Lolita to begin the process of returning the Orca to Puget Sound. The release indicates that the joint effort is “working toward and hope the relocation will be possible in the next 18 to 24 months.”

If released, the plan calls for Tokitae to inhabit a large, underwater pen in the San Juan islands. It would be built with help from the nonprofit The Whale Sanctuary Project.

Tokitae’s move to Washington would still have to be approved by several federal agencies including the US department of agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources. Raynelle Morris, a Lummi Elder  said she believes Tokitae could be home by the end of the year.


Tokitae’s ordeal began in the calm waters of Penn Cove, Whidbey Island – a quiet island off the coast of Washington State – five decades ago. (Actually Whidbey Island is an island situated in Puget Sound, an inlet of the Pacific.) Men with long sticks and guns corralled a group of resident killer whales, separating mothers from their calves. At least a dozen of those whales died during the capture, and more than 50 were kept for captive display.

One of those calves was four-year-old Tokitae. Back home, the native Lummi people call her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut – meaning that she is a member of Sk’aliCh’elh, the resident family of orcas who call the Salish Sea home. The tribe, who views killer whales as part of their extended family, have never stopped fighting for her release.

Toki’s relatives – members of the resident L-pod in the Salish Sea – are still alive, including the 90-year-old whale believed to be her mother. Experts worry that if she were to encounter her kin, even through a sea pen, the infections Toki picked up in captivity could be spread to other southern resident killer whales, an already-endangered group that numbers only 74 individuals.


By the mid-1970s, some 270 orcas were estimated to have been captured in the Salish Sea, the transboundary waters between the U.S. and Canada. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50 were kept for captive display.

All are now dead but one, Tokitae.


The entire video is good, but if you don’t want to watch that much, tune in at about 3:23.

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