MIAMI — An orca captured from Puget Sound more than 50 years ago may be closer to coming home.
For years, members of Washington’s Lummi nation have been fighting for the orca’s release from a Miami aquarium where she’s been held since the early 70s.
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."
Born free in the Puget Sound, Tokitae, a Southern Resident orca, was just four years old when she was captured in Penn Cove and sold to the Miami Seaquarium in 1971.
Her new owners named her Lolita. Her traditional Lummi name is Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut.
For the past 52 years, she’s been languishing in a small cement aquarium, performing for crowds in exchange for food.
More than 3,000 miles away from home, members of the Lummi Nation have never stopped fighting and praying for Tokitae’s return to the Salish sea.
To the Lummi, orcas are considered family, and "relatives under the waves." Their history is deeply entwined with the Lummi’s own.
“When they came in the roundup in the 1970s and took her, that is exactly what they did to the Lhaq'temish children, by rounding them up and taking them to Indian resident boarding schools," said Raynelle Morris, a Lummi Elder and board member of the non-profit group Friends of Toki. "Stripped them of their families, stripped them of their home, stripped them of their culture, of their traditional foods."
News of Thursday’s pending announcement isn’t a total surprise to Morris. She said, in recent months, the new owner of the Miami Seaquarium made a promise to help support Tokitae’s journey home if certain conditions are met.
“When the agencies and her independent vet team agree, she's ready to go home, he'll support it," Morris said. "One hundred percent, he said 'I'll support it.'”
So far, the outlook is good. Tokitae’s health has improved since last year and she’s receiving specialized care from a group of independent veterinarians for the first time.
“Having her own vet team, specific just for her was huge," Morris said. “We brought in some enrichment folks to help with the vets. And between everyone working together, she started to heal.”
Morris and another elder have been granted exclusive access to Tokitae on several occasions, serenading her with traditional drumming and cedar from the Salish sea.
“I drummed and she stayed right in front of me," Morris said. "That's the first time she's been able to hear her Lhaq'temish language, to be able to get traditional healing."
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.
The Whale Sanctuary Project is currently constructing a seaside sanctuary in Nova Scotia for whales retired from entertainment parks and they’re helping finalize plans for Tokitae’s Salish Sea pen too.
“Now that we have financial resources, what ancestors have told me is they're clearing her path home," Morris said. "And her Lhaq'temish culture is going to ready her spirit to make that journey."
Morris said the signs of a homecoming on the horizon are hard to miss.
During a prayer ceremony for Tokitae held earlier this year, Morris said a large gathering of orcas near a sacred Lummi site made their presence known.
“About the time we were doing ceremony, they were there," Morris said. "The Superpod. They know. They're getting ready."
Morris said Tokitae is part of a family of orcas known as the L Pod. The pod, including an orca thought to be Tokitae’s mother, was recently spotted off the coast of California.
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. Morris said she believes Tokitae could be home by the end of the year.