Tokitae’s death surfaced orcas’ complicated history in the PNW

The death of the whale at a Miami amusement park just before her planned release highlighted the species’ fraught relationship with humans.

A human trainer stands next to an orca on a water-level platform in a theme park pool.

In this undated photo, the orca known by the names Tokitae and Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut performs with a trainer in a theme park pool. The orca, which lived for decades in captivity in the Miami Seaquarium, was also called Lolita. (Nuri Vallbona/AP)

This is part of a series updating our readers on some of our top stories of the past year.

The orca has become the symbol of the Pacific Northwest, perhaps even more so than the salmon they eat. Several events this year have put an international spotlight on the relationship between orcas and humans — including the tragic death of a captive Northwest orca taken in the ’70s as well as the emergence of a new mysterious behavior by orcas in the wild. For such a well-known and much-loved critter, there are still large gaps in our knowledge about them.

In 1931 a juvenile orca swam up the Columbia River and frolicked near Portland, and the city became entranced by its visit. But few Portland residents knew what it was. Many assumed it was some kind of fish. In a place so far removed from the ocean, orcas were a rare, almost unknown sight. They named the critter Ethelbert, and soon it was shot and killed, embalmed, and set up as a sideshow by a former whaler. The dead orca was not a draw, however, and she was later buried on a mountain in Washington.

Some 30 years later, orcas again entered show business involuntarily. A man named Ted Griffin began capturing live Salish Sea orcas in the 1960s. He is most closely associated with an orca named Namu, who starred in a Hollywood movie and was exhibited in a small pen on Seattle’s waterfront. Unfortunately, Elliott Bay pollution cut Namu’s life short.

Namu’s celebrity set off a rush to capture live killer whales. They were sent to marine parks to provide entertainment as aquatic circus acts. Before capturing orcas in the Pacific Northwest was banned in the mid-1970s, 53 Southern Resident orcas were taken. The last survivor of that group, named Tokitae or, alternately, Lolita, died in August after 53 years in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. She had been part of a mass capture at Penn Cove on Whidbey Island in 1970.

If Ethelbert’s death was tragic and soon forgotten, Tokitae’s passing was widely publicized and grieved. Releasing her from captivity in her home waters was planned for 2024. After so many years in captivity, could she adapt to being free again? Any debate was resolved when she died without ever returning home. A necropsy revealed she had chronic diseases, including “renal disease and pneumonia,” conditions often associated with old age.

The Lummi Nation in Washington have close ties with Tokitae, whom they call Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, meaning “a family of orcas who live under the Salish Sea.” The Lummi had been working hard to obtain her release to bring her back home to the waters of the Southern Resident L-pod from which she was taken. She is regarded as kin to the Lummi, and her mother is believed to still be alive as part of that pod. 

In an article in Indian Country Today (ITC) News and republished on Crosscut, Lummi tribal chair Anthony Hillaire said, “There are some parallels to our story as Native people … What kind of world do we live in where permits are issued for people to come in and kidnap a baby orca and take her from one coast to another coast so she can be put on stage to perform and make someone money and be held in a place that’s not natural to her, and to be held there for so long. For her to finally have a chance to come home and die before that happens, it’s pretty powerful. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in. As Lummi people, we’ve experienced some of those traumas as well.” Those traumas include the forced removal of Indigenous children to residential boarding schools, a sad legacy that echoes the plight of captured orcas.

Tokitae was cremated after her necropsy, and her ashes — some 300 pounds of them — were flown back home for a private Lummi ceremony returning her to her home waters.

It’s unfortunate, but the capture of live orcas has helped our understanding of them — perhaps a small silver lining. Still, Tokitae’s death brought headlines and sparked a sense of collective guilt now that we know so much more about them, their social life, language, culture and raw intelligence.

This has given way to speculation about a recent series of orca encounters with boats near the Strait of Gibraltar and the coast of Spain. This year accounts of orcas bumping vessels and targeting rudders came from boaters in the region. As many as four boats have reportedly been sunk by orca actions. The latest incident, in late October, resulted in the sinking of a Polish yacht off the coast of Morocco. Researchers are loath to call these “attacks” because the motives of the orcas are unclear. Experts say orcas can teach each other certain behaviors, and this behavior has been increasing in that region over the past couple of years.

Could this be revenge for our collective mistreatment of orcas? One headline called it an orca “uprising.” Was it hostile killer-whale behavior or mere orca social play? Similarly inexplicable behavior has been witnessed in the Salish Sea. For 60 years members of L-pod have been observed tossing porpoises, flipping them into the air, or holding them in their teeth and diving down. Such porpoise-tossing can apparently last for hours and sometimes kills the porpoises, which are not prey for L-pod members (they eat fish, not other marine mammals). Is it some kind of training for hunting salmon? Or is it a game, like tossing beach balls? Considering the conditions under which Tokitae died — a social animal living for more than half a century in a small tank a world away from family and clan — a guilty conscience might wonder if orcas have reason to be hostile to humans.

Tokitae isn’t the only recent celebrity marine-mammal victim. News organization The Canadian Press earlier this year reported that 14 whales (13 were belugas) and a dolphin have died in captivity at Marineland, an aquarium and theme park in Niagara Falls, Ontario, since 2019. The count included an orca named Kiska who died last March after spending over 40 years in a tank, alone. She was described as “the loneliest whale in the world.” She was captured off Iceland in 1979. Her cause of death was a bacterial infection. She had given birth to five calves, all of which died in captivity.

Ted Griffin, who first popularized capturing orcas and made a business of it, says he has no regrets about Tokitae or the scores of other whales he captured for commercial reasons or killed in the process. But public opinion seems to be tracking against captive-whale marine shows. At the same time whale-watching to see orcas and other cetaceans in the wild has become a multibillion-dollar industry. There also have been increased sightings of orcas in the Salish Sea, notably the roving, marine-mammal-eating Bigg’s killer whales, which are distinct from the salmon-devouring and endangered Southern Residents.

Major concerns now are the health of the general orca population and whether Chinook salmon, the major food source of the Southern Residents, is robust enough to support them. Harassment by boaters and noise from ships and pollution are also concerns. Orcas are numbered and often named so they can be tracked and monitored. New baby orcas, like the two new members of L-pod born this year, are a cause for celebration and headlines these days. Such news offers some solace for the tragedy of Tokitae and her captive generation.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.