Lummi Nation Travels to Miami to Save Killer Whale

By Sandra Hale Schulman
- News From Indian Country -

The Killer Whale named Tokitae by the Lummi Tribe, and Lolita by her captors at Miami’s Seaquarium means different things to each of them.

To the Lummi, she is s one of their own as the 53-year-old orca has been living in the nation’s smallest whale tank at Miami’s Virginia Key for an unheard of 48 years after being violently captured and wrenched from her family in Puget Sound, an estuary in the northwestern U.S. coast of Washington. She is the last remaining survivor of the 50-plus whales captured on Aug. 8, 1970.

Tokitae is not just a killer whale; the orca is a relative and a member of their tribe. They want Tokitae to be able to eat fresh salmon again, and be able to swim with her mother and her father in the Sound.

To the Seaquarium, Lolita is a cash cow, a star attraction that has made them millions of dollars doing daily shows for tourists in her tiny tank. They also hawk her image on stuffed toys, t-shirts, and other best-selling memorabilia.

Delegates from the Lummi Nation have been making annual pilgrimages to Miami to plead for her release, bringing with them a 16-foot carved totem on a flatbed truck as they sing a song to their ancestors asking for guidance in their quest to bring one of their own back home. The delegates from the Lummi say Tokitae, has made the Miami Seaquarium enough money.

“It’s time for her to retire,” said Freddie Lane, a Lummi Nation council member.

Lane and other members of the tribe gather at the Miami Circle, a protected native people’s burial ground in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood on the mouth of the Miami River.

As the sun set, they regroup at the Miami Seaquarium to march and protest peacefully as they do every year. They are joined by animal rights activists and even city officials to encourage potential visitors to turn away.

Lummi carved totem of Orca parked in protest in Miami

The Seaquarium isn’t budging, saying Lolita is well cared for and would never survive the journey back home. They have been offered a million dollars for her by a Miami businessman; received letters from the Miami Mayor and weathered lots of bad publicity, but still refuse to release her. The Lummis have a plan that includes training her to hunt and endure a sling and a tank across the country. They believe it will work and it will give Tokitae back the life that was stolen from her.

“This is our sacred obligation to bring her back,” Lane said. “And one way or another, we’re going to bring Lolita home.”

This year author Sandra Pollard’s released a book, “A Puget Sound Orca in Captivity-the Fight to Bring Lolita Home” that chronicles Lolita/Tokitae’s life story before, during, and after the traumatic 1970 roundup and the extraordinary efforts to bring her home. For over 20 years the Orca Network has called for her release. Pollard is a certified marine naturalist and advocate for the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas.

In March 15, 2018 former Miami Beach Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine hosted a Lummi delegation including Lummi Council Chairman Jay Julius and Council member Fred Lane, and Howard Garrett of Orca Network to announce to Miami their resolve to return Tokitae to her ancestral waters.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine drafted a resolution urging the city commission to call on the Seaquarium to retire Lolita and release her into Orca Network’s care. “We have the opportunity to show a united front with mayors from across Florida saying it’s time to retire Lolita and return her to her natural habitat,” he said.

“The songs she heard from her family are very real to her,” said Douglas James Jr. “That’s what’s playing in her heart. That’s what’s playing in her dreams. We need to do something. Let’s bring this last one home.”

Lolita performs at Seaquarium

The reply from the Seaquarium was this:

“Miami Seaquarium has the utmost respect for the Lummi Nation and the services that the Lummi Business Council provides to its people.  However, the members of the Lummi Business Council are not marine mammal experts and are misguided when they offer a proposal that is not in the best interest of Lolita the orca.  A pressing concern is the welfare of the killer whales near the home of the Lummi Business Council. The Southern Resident Killer Whales of the Pacific Northwest are endangered and their population is rapidly dwindling due to overfishing, boat noise and chemical runoff that has polluted Puget Sound.  The focus should not be on a whale that is thriving in her environment in Miami. After more than 47 years, moving Lolita from her pool, which she shares with Pacific white-sided dolphins, to a sea pen in Puget Sound or anywhere else would be very stressful to her and potentially fatal.  In addition, there is no scientific evidence that the over 50 year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she were to be moved from her home at Miami Seaquarium to a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest. It would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health to consider such a move. Lolita will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium, educating park guests on the plight of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales of the Pacific Northwest,”

 Eric A. Eimstad. General Manager, Miami Seaquarium.

“You have to face the fact that this is not a theoretical animal. This is one real animal that I think people on both sides of the conversation have to step back and say, ‘What’s best for this particular animal at this particular stage of her life?’” said Douglas Wartzok, professor emeritus and professor of biology at Florida International University, who has a Ph.D. in biophysics. “It’s not an easy answer, [but] my opinion is it’s probably better to leave the animal where she has lived for the past 47 years.”

So the debate continues, as the Seaquarium digs in on their position making Lolita perform daily while the Lummi continue to show up and line up the press, the Mayors and the public on their side. It is somewhat the consensus of the scientific community that it would be very difficult for Lolita to survive as a “free orca”, but there are no absolutes and no one knows for sure. Lolita’s home pod has been identified, the retirement plan proposed by the Orca network would transport her to a pen off Orcas Island where her family can be seen. Orcas can live into their 80s and the Seaquarium has seen attendance drop to record lows at SeaWorld as awareness grows.

Can Lolita be moved? Will she survive? Nature works in mysterious ways, maybe one day soon the power of the Lummis prayers will be heard.

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