Picture: Wallie V. Funk photographs and papers, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Heritage Resources, Western Washington University, Bellingham WA 98225-9123

*This blog was updated in August 2023

Over the past 30 years, several whales have captured the attention of the world and the hearts of people when they featured in news headlines. In a series of blogs, we take a look at five whales who’ve made a huge impact and created debates around captivity, rehabilitation in the wild, conservation and whale welfare.  
Our first story focuses on a young orca whale, known as Tokitae (or Lolita), taken from Puget Sound in the U.S. more than half a century ago.  


The notorious Penn Cove captures took place on Saturday 8 August 1970 near Puget Sound, Washington State. More than 80 orca were forced into the cove, using speedboats, nets and explosives, with mothers and calves separated. The orca, clearly traumatised, vocalised loudly (video footage of the brutal captures later came to light).  

Five whales drowned in the nets and seven orca were removed, sold and transported to various marine parks. One of those orca was four-year-old Tokitae, or Toki (who later came to be known by Lolita, the stage name given to her).  

For many years, she was the only surviving orca of the seven taken that August day. She spent 53 years in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium where it’s estimated she performed in more than 25,000 shows.  

A life that couldn’t be more different than the one she experienced during her first four years – swimming and foraging for salmon in Puget Sound, surrounded by her close-knit family unit.  


Over the years, campaigners consistently raised awareness of Tokitae and her plight, particularly the fact that she lived in the smallest orca tank in the world. At 24 metres long and ten metres wide, her tank was just four times her size.  

It’s estimated that she would have needed to circle it 600 times to travel the same distance that a wild orca covers in a single day. It also didn’t allow for a very normal orca behaviour, that of diving. 

You may have seen widely shared drone footage from 2014 showing the size of her tank – if not, check out Drones for Animal Defense video on YouTube 

Concerns were raised about Tokitae’s health, including experiencing sunburn from being exposed to the sun and having eye and teeth problems, to name just a couple. Activists say she endured mental and behavioural effects from boredom and isolation – she was the only orca at the Miami Seaquarium (her orca companion for 10 years, Hugo, died in 1980). Some experts say that she remained in relatively good shape considering the length and nature of her captivity.

Supporters, including celebrities and indigenous communities, lobbied for her rehabilitation and release, with the campaign particularly growing momentum since 1995.  

Tokitae’s family is a group of 43 orcas, known as L pod who belong to the Southern Resident orca group of 88 whales. They were listed as endangered in 2005, one of the reasons why Miami Seaquarium argued at the time that it was best for Tokitae to stay in her current home.  

In February 2015, Tokitae was officially included by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the endangered listing for the Southern Resident orca group.  

Critical report  

A 2021 report by the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service cited serious problems during an inspection of Miami Seaquarium. These included poor water flow leading to an increase in bacteria and algae in several tanks and pools, reduction in food quantity, leading to possible malnutrition and dehydration, and potentially placing incompatible animals together resulting in the injuries and/or deaths of cetaceans and pinnipeds.  
They were also cited for having insufficient shelter to protect the mammals from direct sunlight, and inappropriate and potentially dangerous routines demanded of Tokitae.  

The future for Tokitae 

There was some encouraging news in 2022, believed to have been prompted by the report. In March, the Miami Seaquarium, under new management, said they would no longer conduct daily shows featuring Tokitae. Effectively meaning she retired from performing. 

The tank was now off limits to public visitors but it still continued to be her home, a space that it was woefully small for an animal of her size. So what could the future hold for Tokitae?

In 2022, she was now thought to be 56, which is very old for an orca in a marine park or aquarium. But not old for an orca in the wild, where female orcas can live well into their 90s.  

An L pod matriarch called Ocean Sun, believed to be Tokitae’s mother, is still alive and well at an estimated 93 years of age.  

Tokitae continued to vocalise in her native L pod language and it’s believed around 14 of the orca who were in the area with her prior to her capture are still alive. The hope was that she could be rehabilitated in a seaside sanctuary and if communication could be re-established with her pod, that she could be released into the wild with them.  

She would have needed to re-learn new skills in the rehabilitative pen, including how to catch her own food, and be given time to build up her strength and stamina once again.  

The Sacred Sea Conservancy along with experts from the Whale Sanctuary Project created a responsible operational plan to bring Tokitae to her home waters in the Salish Sea should that be decided that’s the best future for her.  

Things that had to be factored into that decision were her age and her health (not just hers but that of other whales in case she could pass on infections she’s picked up in captivity). 

However, a very persuasive argument that supported her rehabilitation and release is that she had proven to be a strong and resilient whale to survive so long in captivity and that she would also display those characteristics if re-introduced into the wild.

In March 2023, the owners of the Miami Seaquarium announced a “formal and binding agreement” with the Friends of Toki group to begin the process of returning Tokitae to Puget Sound.

A detailed plan was yet to be released (a news release mentioned working toward and hope of a relocation being possible in the next 18 to 24 months) and federal agencies would have to sign off on any plans to transport Tokitae.

It felt like, finally, there was a step in the right direction for the imprisoned orca whale.

But sadly in August 2023, her condition deteriorated rapidly and she died, provoking an outpouring of grief and sadness amongst people around the world. Read more in this NBC news article.

Find out more about the Sacred Sea Conservancy and the Whale Sanctuary Project