Tokitae the orca, also known as Lolita, died in the world’s smallest orca tank at the Miami Seaquarium after spending more than 50 years in captivity
Los Angeles, August 20th, 2023— The orca Tokitae, named Lolita by her jailers, died on Friday, August 18th, 2023, in the world’s smallest orca tank at the Miami Seaquarium, in Florida, after having spent more than 50 years captive there. She died due to a suspected renal condition. In the weeks before her death, veterinarians reported she was experiencing “abdominal/stomach discomfort.”
This heartbreaking news feels especially tragic because plans had recently been initiated to finally free her into a whale sanctuary, after years of campaigning by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and The Lummi Nation. On March 30th, 2023, the Miami Seaquarium announced the signing of a formal and binding agreement with the group Friends of Toki to begin the process of returning Tokitae to Puget Sound, where she was initially abducted more than 50 years ago. The news release, at that time, stated they were “…working toward and hope the relocation will be possible in the next 18 to 24 months.” But, that proved to be too late.
A Miserable Life in Captivity
Tokitae (aka “Toki,” and “Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut”), who up until her death was the oldest orca in captivity, was captured in 1970, when she was about four years old, with six other orcas, in the waters off Penn Cove, near Washington state’s coast. She was then sold to the Miami Seaquarium and named Lolita by her jailers. For much of her first 10 years in captivity, she shared her small tank with Hugo, who died in 1980 due to a brain aneurysm after repeatedly ramming his head into the tank wall. The Miami Seaquarium then held Tokitae in a tank with incompatible dolphins who attacked her.
She was held all these years in a tank that measured about 80×35 feet and, at its very deepest point, 20 feet. She was 21 feet long, so she could only go a few body lengths in any direction. Orcas in the wild swim upwards of 80 to 100 miles every day and will dive as deep as 300 feet or more, which highlights how tiny her jail was. In addition to her severe and cruel confinement, for most of her time in captivity, she was forced to perform tricks to entertain aquarium visitors.
Signs She Felt Tormented
Tokitae displayed stereotypic behavior, abnormal repetitive behavior with no apparent function, which is a widely recognized indicator of having difficulties in coping with captive life.
In 2021, a 17-page federal inspection report revealed that the Miami Seaquarium had failed to provide Tokitae with sufficient shade, reduced her food intake against veterinary instructions, and forced her to perform in ways that likely injured her. The U.S. Department of Agriculture subsequently elected not to allow the new Miami Seaquarium owner The Dolphin Company to exhibit her publicly.
According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, female orcas live a maximum of 90 years in the wild, but Tokitae was 57 years of age when she passed away, her suffering finally over. Ocean Sun, a 90-year-old orca believed to be Tokitae’s mother, still lives in the L-pod of Orcas in the Salish Sea. Tragically, she will never see her daughter again as the plans to move her to a whale sanctuary in contact with the waters where Ocean Sun lives proved to be too late.
Animal Advocates Are Mourning Tokitae’s Death
On their website, Friends of Toki state, “Toki was an inspiration to all who had the fortune to hear her story and especially to the Lummi nation that considered her family. Those of us who have had the honor and privilege to spend time with her will forever remember her beautiful spirit.”
Ingrid Newkirk, PETA President, said in a statement, “Kind people begged the Miami Seaquarium to end Lolita’s hellish life in a concrete cell and release her to a seaside sanctuary, where she could dive deep, feel the ocean’s currents, and even be reunited with the orca believed to be her mother, but plans to move her to a seaside sanctuary came too late, and Lolita was denied even a minute of freedom from her grinding 53 years in captivity.”
Growing Calls to Boycott The Captivity Industry
In a Facebook Post showing Tokitae’s body being lifted, the Orca Rescues Foundation said, “The last Southern Resident orca to fall victim to the captivity industry, is lifted, lifelessly, from the water in preparation for transport. After 53 years, Tokitae is finally free of this wretched place, but it was never supposed to be like this…While these images may be distressing to look at, if you can, please take a moment of silence for her. She endured 53 years away from her family and managed to create some sad sort of existence in this minuscule tub of water. After all the shows she was made to perform, this is what she’s been given in return. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it will never be forgiven or forgotten.”
“PETA urges families to honor Lolita’s memory by never visiting marine parks and is calling on the Seaquarium to continue with plans to send the dolphin who was Lolita’s tank mate to a sea sanctuary, along with all of the other dolphins, before the death toll rises.” — Ingrid Newkirk, PETA President
What's Your Reaction?
Jordi Casmitjana is a vegan zoologist and author.