Underscore News and ICT

After over 52 years in captivity and thousands of performances at the Miami Seaquarium, the orca known as Tokitae, or her stage name Lolita, whose Lummi name is Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, will return to her homelands in the Salish Sea.

At a press conference on Thursday, a formal and binding agreement was announced between the Miami Seaquarium, under new management by The Dolphin Company, and Friends of Lolita — the one goal is to safely bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home. The effort is being funded in part by philanthropist Jim Irsay, the owner & CEO of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.

“She’s a symbol of our recognition today, us human beings now, that in the past we have done things we shouldn’t have,” said Pritam Singh, environmentalist, philanthropist and co-founder of Friends of Lolita, during the press conference.

Now 56-years-old, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was captured and removed from her home waters in 1970, off the coast of Washington in the Salish Sea. Until 2022, she performed twice a day, year round, at the Miami Seaquarium. There, she is kept in a 80-foot-long and 35-foot-wide tank, with no ability to dive down and escape the sun. However, no date was given on when she will be back in Pacific Northwest waters.

Moving Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut will not only be an expensive endeavor, but it is important that she is ready to make the move, after over five decades in captivity. Until then, trainers will work with her to help her remain calm, Tah-Mahs, president of Sacred Sea and an enrolled Lummi tribal citizen, told ICT and Underscore News.

On Thursday, the promise to bring her home, which Lummi tribal citizens, the organization Sacred Sea and people from across the globe have been working toward for years, was finally made official.

“After that conference ended, I sat down and did such an ugly cry. Because it has been so long,” Tah-Mahs said. “It just finally means everything we have been working towards for the past seven years can finally begin.”

In August 2021, Sacred Sea announced plans for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s safe return home during a virtual event, “Netse Mot for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut,” honoring the 51st anniversary of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s capture.

Xwlemi Tokw, the orca’s new Lummi home in the Salish Sea, will consist of 15 acres of protected area, with a 100-foot-wide and 30-foot-deep netted enclosure to house Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. After years in a small, cement enclosure filled with chlorinated water, when Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut comes home, she will be in ocean waters, connected to the Salish Sea and the acoustic sounds of the ocean.

After over 50 years in captivity, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut will need to have 24/7 care to monitor her wellbeing. Part of that care will include “walks” with a boat crew, where she will get to explore outside the netting, Tah-Mahs said.

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is part of the J-pod of Southern Resident killer whales, one of three pods that live in the Salish Sea. Currently, there are 73 Southern Resident killer whales, which are an endangered population. One of the other J-pod whales is thought to be Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s mother, who is in her late 80s. The typical lifespan of an orca is between 50 and 90 years.

Seaquariums took over 50 Southern Resident killer whales from their home in the Salish Sea during the 1960s and 1970s, reducing the whales' genetic diversity. Government researchers point to that as one of the main reasons Southern Residents suffer from inbreeding today, and are half as likely as other orcas to survive through their prime reproductive years.

The Lummi word for orca is “Quahamitchtan,” meaning “people under the sea.” The orcas are considered to be relations of the Lummi tribe, people who wear killer whale regalia to live in the ocean, Tah-Mahs said during the Netse Mot event.

“Bringing her home is the beginning of the apology to the Southern Resident,” Tah-Mahs said. “We are trying to right the wrong that happened so long ago.”

Though a promise has been made and a plan is in place for her safe transition, the timeline for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s journey home is still unknown. The cost of bringing her home will be great.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Eduardo Albor, CEO of the Dolphin Company said during the press conference. “But I know Lolita wants to get to free waters.

Relocation could be possible in the next 18 to 24 months, according to a press release.

“Once we bring her home, she’s retired. She’s been a showgirl her whole life,” Tah-Mahs said. “I’m hoping that people will respect her need for privacy.”

This story is co-published by Underscore.news and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

Main image: Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut in her concrete tank at Miami Seaquarium. (Photo courtesy of Sacred Sea)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...