Last orca taken from Salish Sea may soon return home

Editors note: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok is the son of Ken Balcomb and nephew of Howard Garrett, two key participants in this story and efforts to return the whale in this report to the Pacific Northwest, and was also involved in efforts to release her during the 90s.

She goes by many names. Some call her Lolita, an early stage name given her in the 1970s when she was just a young girl. Some call her Tokitae, a Coast Salish greeting that means “nice day, pretty colors.” Some call her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (pronounced SKAH-lee-CHUKH-tah-NOT), an indigenous name given by the Lummi Nation to acknowledge her unique ties to the Pacific Northwest.

While humans will never know her name given to her at birth by her mother, millions know her as the last remaining Southern Resident Killer whale taken during the capture era in Washington state over five decades ago.

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was born in the Salish Sea in the mid-1960s, spending her early formative years with her tight-knit family, learning the language and traditions of her extended clan. Surrounded by loving family, she familiarized herself with the world around her: The ever-flowing inland straits of the Salish Sea; The dark deep undersea terrain of the western coast of North America. The waxing and waning of the moon passing overhead.

She was taught by her ancestors the pulse of the tides, rising and falling like the beat of a heart. Over time she became aware of the ebb and flow of the life-giving salmon her family depends upon for survival. Constantly on the move, she developed a keen knowledge of her family’s long-held favored fishing grounds, along with the strategies to successfully hunt, survive, and thrive.

As a young child she quickly developed a proficiency in the ways of her clan. The dialect of those closest to her soon became her own. The knowledge and traditions passed down from generation to generation becoming second nature to her, as the young whale grew and matured.

Then one day all that ended.

On Aug. 8, 1970, in an inland bay known as Penn Cove, along the eastern shore of Whidbey Island, a capture took place that would change this young female whale’s life forever.

Impenetrable nets were drawn. Loud explosives were detonated. Noisy boats encircled her clan. Squeals of terror from her family echoed across the water, as members of her clan were violently separated. The young lifted away, never to be seen again. Elders forced to watch helplessly in terror.

The young and smaller whales were the target of the captors, as they were easier to transport and would bring top dollar on the new and fast-growing captive animal entertainment market. Young killer whales were selling for tens of thousands of dollars, making it a very lucrative effort for all those involved.

For a young Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, she unknowingly would one day become a world-wide symbol of the wrongs done to her kin, but that day the sheer terror of being torn from the love of her mother and family would be all she knew.

Fifty-three years have passed since that fateful day.

Of the more than fifty killer whales taken from the Pacific Northwest to supply an insatiable human demand for entertainment at the cost of an animal’s freedom, only two remain alive, languishing in tanks in Miami and San Diego. Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, of the Southern Resident clan at the Miami Seaquarium, and Corky, of the Northern Resident clan at SeaWorld San Diego.

What makes Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut so special, is both a blessing and a curse. She has a good-hearted nature, a deep curiosity of the isolated world around her, and an unparalleled patience for her current situation. She has been held in a small tank barely deeper than she is long for most of her life since she was an adolescent child, and yet she still retains a palpable sense of joy towards life.

Now in her mid-fifties, she has seen and lived an isolated life few could ever imagine or tolerate, yet all the while she retains her joy for living. While the conditions of her situation are worlds away from the life she could have lived, she continues to experience every sunrise, survive every hurricane that batters the Florida coastline, and greet every visitor with an inquisitive and soulful gaze.

According to Jessie White—her veterinarian for the first 20 years of her captivity—who traveled from Miami to Seattle in 1970 to select a mate for a captive Orca named Hugo (also removed from the Pacific Northwest), “she was so beautiful, unmarked, just a mellow nice animal.”

Little did anyone know at the time that this mellow whale would outlast every other whale taken from her extended family and home waters over five decades ago.

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut has been in captivity in a small tank in Miami since men walked on the moon, Paul McCartney announced the Beatles disbanded, the US invaded Cambodia, 10,000 people protested the Vietnam War, the Walt Disney World Theme Park opened in Florida, and the Soviet Union launched Salyut 1, the first space station, into low Earth orbit.

Her life at the Miami Seaquarium was spent day in and day out performing for visitors young and old who visited the Miami Seaquarium, a 38-acre oceanarium located on the island of Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay, Miami-Dade County, Florida near downtown Miami. Although her trainers and veterinarians deeply cared for and about Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut through the years, until just recently her life has been spent entirely in show business.

Over the past five decades Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut has entertained millions of people. For most who came to see the show, it was their first encounter with a killer whale. Every person walking into that small stage and pool was greeted by Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, a beautiful and intelligent representative of her species, often making eye contact with visitors and nearly always touching the hearts of those who came to see her perform.

Meantime, she has not been forgotten by many who have long held hope for an eventual return to her home waters of the Salish Sea.

One of those who has never given up hope, even when it sometimes has seemed a futile gesture, is Howard Garrett of Freeland Washington, living just miles from where Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was reft from her clan so many, many years ago.

Garrett has personally seen the ebb and flow of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s life from afar. He first became involved in her life’s saga back in the 1990’s when his brother, the late Ken Balcomb—along with then Secretary of State Ralph Munro, Governor Mike Lowry, and others—spearheaded an effort to attempt to return Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (then Lolita) to her home waters in Washington state.

In the mid to late-1990s significant publicity was generated for her release, including a Seattle Times special in Pacific Magazine titled “Free Lolita: Captured by showbiz, can she come home again?”; a Dateline NBC special that provided national coverage; two documentaries titled “Lolita: Slave to Entertainment” ( and “Lolita: Spirit in the Water” ( were released, reaching hundreds of thousands of people.

In Miami, Lolita garnered the attention and support of the owner of Ocean Drive magazine, a lifestyle and fashion publication, providing frequent and sustained coverage of her plight; while closer to home Garrett would write a piece for the Island Independent titled “Willy, Keiko, & Lolita: The Inside Story.”

On March 9, 1995, under a moist and overcast sky, Balcomb joined Washington Secretary of State Munro and Governor Lowry to hold a press conference at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle, calling for the release of Lolita (Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut) to her native waters of the Salish Sea. According to Garrett, who attended the press conference (along with this author), “The effort was based on Ken’s work to research how to return Keiko (from FREE WILLY fame) back to his ocean home. So he just applied all that knowledge to Lolita, as she was known at the time.”

The captive marine mammal industry, however, aggressively fought back, resisting any and every effort to release any captive Orca from their highly profitable facilities worldwide. Fearing the precedence it would set, and arguing the animals were happy and healthy in their care, the captive industry spent large amounts of time and money to defeat and/or defame any efforts to return wild Orcas to their natural habitats.

“We were up against the drumbeat of the Sea Aquarium and the entire marine park industry,” said Garrett, “convincing the public that once in captivity always in captivity for a whole variety of made-up reasons. But the simple statement, which was like a bumper sticker slogan, was ‘It’ll kill her’ and most of the public at that time agreed .

This is a multi-part series, to be continued next week.