Tokitae, AKA Lolita, the oldest orca held in captivity, died unexpectedly on Friday — less than five months after plans had been announced to release her back into her native waters. She had been only 4 years old when she was captured from a group of southern resident orca in Penn Cove, just off of Whidbey Island. For the next five decades, Lolita became the star attraction at the Miami Seaquarium, performing twice a day until she ceased public presentations in 2022.
There’s more to it, of course. There always is. Her death followed what Seaquarium vets referred to as a “renal condition,” and I’m sure that all involved are affected by her passing in some way. Still, the truth of it all is that Tokitae was killed the day that her freedom was taken from her, way back in the ’70’s. It just took us that long to finish the job.
I remember growing up in southern California, seeing the commercials on TV for Sea World that featured “Shamu,” an orca kept in conditions similar to those that Tokitae was held in, made to perform for our thrills and enjoyment in a tiny pool where we could all sit in the sun and marvel at the power and the beauty. I loved it. I begged my parents to be allowed to go and see it all for myself and I still remember how incredibly cool it was to see that magnificence up close. Nothing was even mentioned about possible ethical concerns. There weren’t any, not that I could see. I didn’t know any better and it didn’t seem like anyone else did either. I am ashamed of my reactions today and I wish I had more perspective. I was only 11; I don’t know what excuses worked for others.
Tokitae was supposed to be released soon, as early as next year, returned to the waters she was stolen from all those years ago. Her mother, “Ocean Sun,” still swims in Puget Sound with the southern resident community. She is 94 years old and believed to be the oldest member of the population. There had been talk of a reunion, a chance for mother and child to see and talk with one another again, but that will not happen now.
It is a cruel and thoughtless entitlement that allows us such a tortured view of the world and those we share it with. I hear that we have made some progress but I am still not convinced.