Will captive Southern Resident orca Lolita/Tokitae come home?

(WSB photo – 2017 Alki march supporting freedom for Lolita)

It’s been two and a half weeks since news that the last surviving Southern Resident Killer Whale from the captures half a century ago might be able to come home after all. But will a homecoming really happen for the 57-year-old orca Lolita/Tokitae? As this report from Florida explores, there’s some controversy and confusion on that side of the country, and even if plans can be worked out, the whale’s move could be years away. In today’s Seattle Times, West Seattle-based The Whale Trail executive director Donna Sandstrom writes about lessons learned in an orca reunion with which she was involved, that of Springer, the Northern Resident orca who got lost down here. We had asked Sandstrom recently for her thoughts on the Lolita/Tokitae announcement, and here’s what she told us:

The big news in the recent release is that the Miami Seaquarium is on board, and they have found a committed funder. However, returning an orca is not as simple as the stories make it sound. Having secured these major commitments, I’d encourage the organizers to take the next most critical step and start talking with NOAA.

Based on my experience working on the Lolita project in the mid-1990s, and as a community organizer on the successful effort to return Springer to her pod in 2002, here are some things to consider.

1. If Lolita is going to be moved to a net pen in Puget Sound, NOAA Fisheries will be the decision-maker, and have ultimate authority and responsibility for the project, in consultation with other key stakeholders like Washington State and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

2. Before permitting a reintroduction or relocation to a new facility such as a net pen, NOAA and their teams will consider the benefits compared to the risk – for Lolita, for her endangered family, and for the marine ecosystem here. It’s a complex set of conditions with no easy answers. For example:

-How healthy is Lolita? Will she be able to survive the stress of the relocation, and re-adapt to life in Puget Sound?

-The southern resident orcas are critically endangered. The organizers propose to put Lolita in an open-sided net pen in Puget Sound. What is the risk of disease transmission between them and Lolita, and vice versa? Or between Lolita and other marine mammals?

-In 2017 a net pen catastrophically collapsed in Puget Sound, not far from where they propose to put Lolita. As the impacts of global warming accelerate, including increasing high tides and severe storms, how can the structural integrity of the pen, and Lolita’s safety, be ensured for as long as she might live?

-If a reintroduction is not possible, and she is “retired” permanently to a net pen in SRKW range, what would it do to her to be able to hear her family and not join them? What would that do to her family (L pod)?

For Springer, NOAA determined that there was a high likelihood of success and that it was a risk worth taking. I am not sure where that analysis will land for Lolita. But it is in everyone’s best interest – especially Lolita’s – to get that conversation going.

The federal agency made one key ruling on Lolita/Tokitae’s behalf eight years ago – ruling that she would be included in the listing of the Southern Resident Killer Whales as endangered. That announcement noted that “any future plan to move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries and would undergo rigorous scientific review.”

10 Replies to "Will captive Southern Resident orca Lolita/Tokitae come home?"

  • anonyme April 18, 2023 (6:06 am)

    These same questions have been asked for decades.  If the answers are not available, it must either be because the questions are unanswerable, or they are being used as an excuse for delay.  One thing is certain: Lolita cannot stay in her present environment, and at some point, risks will have to be taken.  I only hope that she doesn’t die in prison while waiting for the red tape to clear.

  • Derek April 18, 2023 (6:44 am)

    It’s been long enough! Bring her home!!!!! So gross to call her Lolita, her name is Tokitae!! She belongs in the Salish!

    • Chuck Jacobs April 18, 2023 (8:55 am)

      Both names were given to her by humans. She probably calls herself something else.

      • anonyme April 18, 2023 (1:27 pm)

        Chuck, this response made me smile.  It would be interesting to hear her ‘name’ in her own language and spoken by her own family once again…

  • HS April 18, 2023 (12:27 pm)

    I’d like her to be reunited with her family.  And, I agree, it’s been long enough.

  • Howard Garrett April 18, 2023 (1:30 pm)

    Donna is certainly correct that NOAA will need to approve and supervise Tokitae’s return to her native habitat in the Salish Sea. The other concerns can and will be addressed.
    It’s easy to imagine scary outcomes and there’s a powerful lobby spreading them into the public to prevent any successful return of any captive whale or dolphin. If people looked realistically at Keiko’s experience we would learn that those same fears were raised and were resolved by a panel of six veterinarians and pathologists who examined him before he went to Iceland. That team was led by Dr. Jim McBain, who is now one of Tokitae’s veterinarians.  When Keiko touched down in Iceland he thrived immediately and became even stronger, eventually swimming across the Atlantic while catching his fill of fish the entire way.
    The lessons for Toki are that the pathogen issue is manageable and not scary, and that she’ll thrive in her native habitat. The fear that requires that she never leave the pen is based on misinformation, but it is rampant and much harder to manage.

  • CorvidFan April 18, 2023 (2:02 pm)

    Her tank in Florida is tiny and they never have any security for her during hurricanes, they just leave her exposed to the weather and are like “Good luck, hope your tank doesn’t collapse and kill you.”   Lolita used to have another orca (Hugo) as a tankmate; he bashed his head against the concrete until he died and the theme park threw his body in the dump, never to be mentioned again. I want Lolita to live a long and healthy life, but even with the health risks I think it’s more ethical to bring her here rather than leaving her with hucksters who don’t care about her (and are only willing to let her go now because they can’t legally display her).   The risk of disease transmission is a good point, but can’t they get up her health in a (large) tank before transferring her to a sea pen?

  • Terri Mitchell April 19, 2023 (5:40 am)

    Explaining the regulatory process and some of the considerations that have been largely ignored (esp on social media) is not being negative or fearful. As frustrating as it is to think that Lolita is simply going from one “handler” to the next — yet another set of humans determining her fate — it is reality, and we advocates who have been working for her release and/or to save the Southern Residents have a responsibility to fairly balance public expectations.

    We can learn from both Springer and Keiko, but neither is an exact parallel to Lolita’s situation or the current proposal. The endangered species listing alone makes this a whole new ballgame: As Naomi Rose has pointed out, this is the first time that NOAA Fisheries will be tasked with deciding if and how to transfer a captive marine mammal who is a member of an endangered species. They must protect both Lolita AND the wild population , and we are just at the beginning of this determination. What was done for Keiko, what was done for Springer, and what could and should have been done for Lolita in the 1990s is not necessarily the same as what can or will be done now. We can surely acknowledge this while still remaining hopeful and positive for her future.

    (Thanks for the photo of our march, WSB! That was such a lovely day …)

  • Davis Colby April 19, 2023 (12:22 pm)

    Please read this article by Mark Leiren-Young in the Times Colonist, “Tokitae is not Keiko — so bring her home now”


  • Nicole April 21, 2023 (9:47 am)

    Thankfully NOAA will deny it. 

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