Tokitae’s death ends dream to return her home

Editor’s 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.

The last remaining Southern Resident Killer whale taken from the Salish Sea during the captures in the late 1960s and early 1970s died suddenly Friday, Aug. 18, in the small pool she’d spent the past 53 years living in.

Lolita, aka Tokitae, aka Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, outlived over 50 other SRKW taken decades ago from Pacific Northwest waters, in a small pool at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

In a statement released Friday from the Friends of Toki, a non-profit working closely with the Miami Seaquarium to return Tokitae to the Pacific Northwest, “Over the last two days, Toki started exhibiting serious signs of discomfort, which her full Miami Seaquarium and Friends of Toki medical team began treating immediately and aggressively. Despite receiving the best possible medical care, she passed away Friday afternoon from what is believed to be a renal condition.”

“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,” the statement continued.

Tokitae’s death was a shock heard around the world.

Especially considering this whale was on the verge of returning home, retiring after 53 years in show business.

Following decades of living in a small pool in the Miami heat, Tokitae was actively being prepared for transport, including training exercises to familiarize herself with the sling she’d be lifted in when that fateful day arrived.

In recent years a number of critical factors had aligned to make her return to the Salish Sea a reality. So much so, that there was genuine reason for hope and optimism that she would in fact experience the cold waters of the inland Salish Sea for the first time in over five decades.

In an interview just prior to Tokitae’s death, Charles Vinick spoke of the unprecedented changes that had led to the effort to bring Tokitae home. “First, the purchase of the Miami Seaquarium by the Dolphin Company and the reports from the USDA really galvanized the effort that led to where we are today,” says Vinick. Vinick is Executive Director of the Whale Sanctuary Project and co-founder of Friends of Toki, a non-profit corporation that was dedicated to supporting efforts to help improve the health and living conditions of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.

“I think most significantly,” says Vinick about the recent groundswell of support for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut that had been building, was “the Lummi Nation and particularly the Sacred Sea, Sacred Lands Conservancy and Raynell Morris, Ellie Kinley, and Julie Trimingham, as a nonprofit organization that really were throughout 2019 leading the charge, if you will, to bring Toki home.”

“Around that same time Lummi more broadly were beginning to plan for and then do the totem pole journey around the country, and specifically back to Miami,” says Vinick. “So there was an indigenous effort to bring Toki home that we in the Whale Sanctuary project were asked to assist with, and we’re pleased to do so.”

At that time Vinick and others began to develop the beginning of an operational plan for this to be led and carried out by the indigenous tribes, and particularly by Lummi. “So we worked with them in that regard. We certainly helped to look at sites, we modified the plans that we already had in place for moving cetaceans for the Whale Sanctuary Project, and we tailored this directly to the work for Toki. And that led to our engagement with them frequently and regularly throughout that period,” he explained.

According to Vinick, it was only when they began to hear two things simultaneously near the end of 2021 that really galvanized the effort that has led to where they are today. One, that the park was going to be sold to an as yet unknown entity, and secondly, the reports from the USDA of the ill health that Toki was in.

As word spread within the whale community that the Miami Seaquarium was going to be sold to the Dolphin Company (their corporate office is located in Cancun, Mexico), Vinick and others officially began to make concerted efforts to contact the new owner and the company’s CEO Eduardo Albor.

Unlike previous efforts to communicate with former owners of the Miami Seaquarium—which were wholly unsuccessful, ignored, and stubbornly dismissed—the effort to reach out to The Dolphin Company was successful early on. A representative of the company responded to Vinick’s and others’ inquiries, agreeing to meet once the park was sold and they were the new owners.

According to Vinick, “They would be prepared to meet with us and visit with us about our interests. And our interests at that time were really about bringing independent veterinarians in to assess Toki’s health, because of all we’d heard, but had no real data about. And the public was still in the dark.”

“Long story short, in March of 2022 the announcement came that The Dolphin Company had purchased Miami Seaquarium and that they were taking over. A number of us, including Reynell, Ellie and myself were in Florida at the time to be there.”

Enter another key player in the effort to help Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. Pritam Singh, a wealthy South Florida benefactor who, according to Vinick, knew the Executive Producer of the film and had a strong interest in helping improve Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s conditions at the park.

“Pritham reached out to Eduardo Albor again,” says Vinick, “asking if they could discuss the situation about Toki. Eduardo responded to him, and they agreed to meet.” The meeting resulted in an agreement to allow an independent veterinarian to visit and assess Toki’s health and welfare on a regular basis, which preceded monthly thereafter.

Further conversations following that initial collaboration were unique, says Vinick. “The theme of collaboration is what I think is unique for those of us who are supporters of Toki in every way, working hand in hand with the owners of a marine park—in this case, the owners of Miami Seaquarium—to work together towards the highest quality of life for her, and the objective of moving her back to the waters of the Salish Sea.

This unique collaboration over the following year would lead to building further trust and respect between all involved. Historically cold relations of the past began to warm between the park’s trainers and veterinarians and the independent veterinarians and trainers that began to enter the park to work with Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.

A subsequent million-dollar donation by Pritam Singh would not only solidify that collaboration but also lead to a number of important improvements to Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s environment.

“When Pritam Singh personally put up a million dollars to help rebuild the infrastructure in the park,” says Vinick, “we built new filters for her water filtration system and a new ozone system replacing the chlorine system. So her life support system, as we refer to it, and all her water systems for her environment would be as up to date as we could possibly make them.”

“The new water systems allow the staff and veterinarians to control the temperature, adjust the pH, maintain salinity, and all of the features needed to operate a high-quality water system,” adds Vinick, “even though it’s an old system.”

Another condition following the sale of the park was an agreement between the park and the government to no longer put Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut on public display.

To acquire a license to operate the rest of the park, the license from the Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant Health Inspection Services, does not include the tank holding Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut and a Pacific White Sided dolphin companion held with her.

Current restrictions are due to the conditions of the whale pool and especially the surrounding stadium superstructure, which has been deemed to not meet current code requirements for Miami-Dade County, who leases the land to the park. According to Vinick, due to these restrictions, there were limits on who can visit and how many people could be in the whale stadium at any one time.

With significant progress having been made to improve Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s health and ‘life support systems’ the task ahead was just beginning to shift and focus on Toki and her proposed move to the Salish Sea, when she suddenly passed away Friday.

Following her death, Tokitae’s body was removed Friday evening from the pool by the very sling she was training to use for her return to her home waters. According to reports, her body was loaded into an ice-packed semi-truck and taken to the University of Georgia, which has the necessary facilities to do a necropsy on the famous orca. At press time the results of the necropsy had not been released, as it can take several days or more to determine a whale’s cause of death.

Currently, there are efforts underway by the Lummi Nation and others to bring Tokitae’s body back to the Pacific Northwest for either a proper burial or some other way to celebrate her life.