I was not planning on writing detailed commentary about the recent announcement to retire the orca Tokitae back to her home waters, but the more I read, the more I see reason to share my own perspective. I will be writing a series of posts about Toki, her plight, and exploring the different ways people think we should move forward in giving her a better fate. This post serves as an introduction to those discussions we should be having to best suit Toki’s welfare.
Some of you may have only just heard about Toki – welcome to the journey! Over 50 years ago on August 8th, 1970, she was captured in Penn Cove of Whidbey Island, Washington State along with several other young orca belonging to the southern resident population. Once sent to the Miami Seaquarium, she was given the stage name “Lolita.” The Lummi nation sees her as a member of their people, giving her the name Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut.
During her time in captivity, Toki witnessed Hugo, her tankmate and podmate, bash his head repeatedly against their enclosure until he died of a brain aneurysm. Since that day, she has never seen another orca, lingering in abysmal conditions that should have been deemed illegal under APHIS regulations. Toki belongs to one of the most well-studied groups of orca, and it is believed that her presumed mother, Ocean Sun (L25), is still alive.
I have advocated for Toki’s return since I was in high school. I helped plan the first Miracle March back in 2015, spoke at the event, and shortly after, released a short film about Toki that screened in film festivals. Toki, and the inspiration of her story, brought me out of a deep depression during this time and helped give me the passion to pursue a degree in Marine Biology to protect the ocean and her wild counterparts. She means the world to me, and I want to make sure that we are focusing on what will TRULY be best for her, not our own agendas.
So, what is this big announcement? On March 30th, the Miami Seaquarium announced in collaboration with Friends for Lolita (co-founded by Pritam Singh) that they will be working towards returning Toki to an ocean sanctuary in her home waters of the Salish Sea, where her wild family and presumed mother reside. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay is helping to fund this initiative. They stated that the presumed timeline for this plan is 18 to 24 months.
The full press announcement by the Miami Seaquarium, Jim Irsay, and Friends of Lolita.
I am excited and hopeful about this announcement. As Dr. Naomi Rose shared, for the first time ever, there is a possibility of a “next” for Toki and not a continued fate of suffering in an inadequate tank without another member of her own species. It is also heartwarming to see so many people from different backgrounds coming together for her welfare – a prime demonstration that humanity is still capable of good when we unite for the right reasons. While there is dissent on what the best option is, the vast majority agree that her current conditions are not suitable – and that alone is a huge accomplishment considering where the fence-line was when I first began this journey.
However, I am also worried that this will be another false hope - another plan marred by ego and people working for the wrong reasons. I have also seen many take advantage of Toki’s plight as a way to jump to fame and “have the microphone.” After how hard all of us have worked, and more importantly after all that Toki has endured, she deserves BETTER than being used as a pawn at every step. We need to put our egos aside and come together to respectfully discuss what is best for Toki – and move towards THAT instead of our need to be right.
There is just cause to be skeptical of the announcement. Is the Miami Seaquarium simply doing this and going through the motions to absolve themselves of bad publicity once Toki dies, or is it really out of a newfound care for her welfare? Is Pritam Singh jumping on the bandwagon for good publicity after allegedly tearing Sea Shepherd apart from the inside out and having the organization support the fisheries they are supposedly fighting against and holding accountable? Are Jim Irsay's motives truly about Toki's release like he's stated, or also just for good press? Their true intent remains to be seen, but their actions in the coming months will reveal it.
As much as there is reason to be wary of the plans, and of those directly involved, Toki deserves the chance after all that she has endured. We cannot throw it out of the window simply because our egos and fear are getting in the way. We need to be cautious and make sure that this is being done for the right reason – Toki’s welfare. However, Toki continues to suffer and languish in her current conditions. We need to move forward for her.
Our duty now is to be advocates FOR Toki, to remind the Miami Seaquarium and all involved that this is about Toki and her story, about what is best FOR HER and her family, and that those involved will be embraced by making the right choices or held accountable should they fail her yet again.
Many believe that Toki should be moved to SeaWorld or another enclosure instead of a sea sanctuary or being freed fully. It is important to do our due diligence in considering this, and examining every report and source of data, in pursuit of what is best for her. I would potentially be open to moving her to SeaWorld while the plans for her retirement are in the works so that she does not linger in the poor conditions at the Miami Seaquarium that have continually rendered her ill. Additionally, should the plan to release her fail to jump through the legal hoops, she would at the very least have a better enclosure. However, I do not agree with it being the ideal outcome. Captivity is still a stressful existence for these animals, and lingering in a concrete tank is not what I see as the best possible outcome for her welfare. Continuing to explore these discussions is important and I welcome it, so please comment if you think differently!
There is a lot more to cover, and I look forward to doing so in the following posts. The next one will focus on Toki’s history in more detail and why she deserves a better outcome (the ‘why are we here?’ post). After that, I will discuss what is currently known about Toki’s retirement plans and start weighing the opinions and facts of what people think the best possible outcome should be. If there is anything else that you would like me to write about, please let me know!
Discussion is strongly encouraged in the comments – but please keep it respectful. Do not bash or argue with those who have different viewpoints than you – we need to come together and learn from each other to give Toki the best outcome possible. Any comments that serve to stagnate collaborative discussion or to berate others will be deleted without hesitation – my page is an open and safe space to have these discussions and I will actively protect it. It is important to remember we all come from different starting points in our fight to help Toki and all orca.
Thank you for being with me – and with Toki – on this journey.
Zach Affolter is a passionate aspiring marine biologist and animal/environmental advocate.