Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Illustration by Corey Brickley/High Country News

What Happens to Them Happens to Us

An Indigenous poet reflects on how releasing a captive killer whale could mean our own redemption.

Authored by

by Rena Priest

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This article was originally published in High Country News, a magazine about the American West’s environment and communities. Read more stories like this at hcn.org.

On August 8, 1970, Tokitae was one of six juvenile killer whales abducted from the waters off Washington State. Boats, planes, and bombs were used in the hunt and resulting capture, and five killer whales died. Juveniles were separated from their pods and netted off to await transport into captivity at amusement parks. During those weeks between capture and transport, the adult killer whales never left the abduction site, and the sound of their grief-filled keening rang through the cove.

When Tokitae arrived at Florida’s Miami Seaquarium on September 23, 1970, she’d already been named by the veterinarian who oversaw her capture and transport. In Chinook jargon, Tokitae means, “Bright day, pretty colors.” But in the 1960s, Miami began rebranding itself, marketing itself as a destination with “subtle sex appeal,” and Tokitae was given a new stage name: Lolita.

It’s believed that the character Lolita in Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious novel of that name was inspired in part by the story of a real girl—11-year-old Sally Horner—who was abducted in 1948 and driven across the country to be exploited and abused by her captor. Horner’s nightmare ended with her escape after 21 months in captivity. She died in a car accident two years later, but I imagine she was happy to have those years of freedom—a chance to live as a normal teenager.

The scientific name for the killer whale is Orcinus orca. In Latin, orcinus means, “kingdom of the dead,” or “belonging to Orcus,” god of the underworld. In the Lummi language, killer whales are called Qwe lhol mech ten, “Our relations under the waves.” To my tribe, the Lhaq’ te’mish of the Salish Sea, they are people. In our stories, they have societies and a culture similar to our own.

They are the first harvesters of salmon, and, like Coast Salish tribes, they are matriarchal. Most remain by their mothers’ sides for their entire lives. The matriarchs are the keepers of the wisdom—the decision-makers, the leaders on whom the survival of their pods depends. Lolita’s mother is presumed to be a 91-year-old L pod matriarch known as Ocean Sun.

Serious observation of killer whales only began in the 1960s. In 1971, as head of marine mammal research at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Michael Bigg, a Canadian marine biologist, conducted a census, which ultimately found that, at most, there were only 350 killer whales left. Previously, it had been assumed that regional killer whales numbered in the thousands. The census was prompted by the increased interest in killer whale capture for display in marine parks. Between 1962 and 1973, at least 47 southern resident killer whales were harvested from the British Columbia and Washington coasts; 12 died.

Since then, scientists have broken northeast Pacific killer whales into distinct types: residents (fish and squid eaters), transients (mammal eaters), and offshore (shark and other fish eaters). Lolita is from the L pod—the largest of the southern resident subpods, though only 35 L pod killer whales survive in the wild. The endangered status of the southern resident killer whales has placed them at the center of a fight to restore health and habitability to the Salish Sea bioregion. Their world is a mirror for our own: what happens to them happens to us, and today, they are facing extinction.

I arrived at the Miami Seaquarium on a sunny Saturday in December, during peak tourist season. I wanted to see for myself the whale I’d read so much about, and the place where she has spent the last 49 years.

I surrendered US $51.35 for a ticket and made my way toward the killer whale arena. The area was shuttered by metal roll-up doors, and the wide concrete hallway was devoid of other patrons. A walk through the rest of the park revealed that it was just as sparsely populated: vendors stood idle at concession counters, waiting to sell Dippin’ Dots or French fries. Grade schoolers on a class trip splashed about at the underwater touch tank. At the penguin exhibit, an elderly couple stared into the display window, viewing penguins that stood listlessly in the 27 °C heat. Nearby, two children, completely oblivious of the penguins, played with their stroller.

At the edge of a concrete ditch, I leaned against a rail. When I looked down, I noticed two giant sea turtles swimming in the shallow water. One of the turtles swam toward me, bumped into the wall, turned and swam away. When he reached the other side, he bumped into the wall and turned back again. Swim. Bump. Swim. Bump. I wondered if he had been swimming in circles and bumping into walls all day. Or maybe all day, every day, for decades.

As I wandered through the park, I realized the most astonishing thing about the place wasn’t the captive wildlife. It was that on this beautiful waterfront, in this coveted real estate market, in this era of enlightened consumers, Seaquarium continues to exist at all.

Miami tourism has come a long way since Lolita’s arrival at Seaquarium in 1970. As the world’s busiest launch point for cruise ships, the port of Miami is undergoing a $1.5-billion upgrade, designed to create a lush new experience for visitors. The weekend of my Seaquarium visit, the port welcomed 52,000 visitors in a single day. Meanwhile, a few kilometers away at the convention center, Miami Beach Art Basel drew an estimated 83,000. Hundreds of galleries there paid upwards of $12,000 for a booth. Chic parties and elegant artists’ receptions continued deep into the night in stylish Miami Beach hotels and nightclubs.

The bustle of well-heeled world travelers in a shining seaport, the haughty glamor and celebrity of high art—it all stands in stark contrast to this relic of entertainment: an aging whale in a crumbling theme park.

For the first 10 years of her captivity, Lolita shared a tank with a male killer whale named Hugo. Hugo exhibited what scientists call “stereotypy,” a kind of compulsive behavior induced by confinement. He repeatedly bashed his head into the side of the tank until he eventually died of a brain aneurism. The pool where Lolita has spent most of her life—where she watched Hugo die—is 24 meters long by 11 meters wide, with a depth of six meters. Lolita herself is seven meters long. In the wild, killer whales can dive to depths of several hundred meters.

If I wanted to understand Lolita’s world in an objective way, I needed help. At a conference for college mathematics teachers, workshop participants were given the tank’s dimensions and asked to measure it to human scale. Answers ranged from 12 to 16 square meters.

How big is that? Think of an area rug four meters long by three meters wide. Now imagine spending 10 years there, with another person. Then 39 more years there alone.

“This is just making me horribly sad,” said one participant. “Is there anything that’s in place to try and get her a bigger home? Or is this just her life forever?”

“What’s the standard captive killer whale tank size?” asked another.

“It’s supposed to be at least 48 feet [15 meters] wide,” I explained. Minimum standards require that a captive whale must be able to swim twice its length in any direction. “So it’s not even legal,” said another participant.

Debate about Tokitae’s tank has been ongoing for more than a quarter of a century. In the 1990s, Washington Governor Mike Lowry and Secretary of State Ralph Munro launched the “Free Lolita!” campaign. In 2003, animal rights activist Russ Rector called on officials to issue code violations against the park.

In 2005, due to their rapidly dwindling numbers, southern resident killer whales were granted protection under the Endangered Species Act. In 2015, the act’s protection was specifically extended to Tokitae. It was hoped that the law would mandate her release. Instead, her endangered status worked against her, with some claiming that freeing her would make her vulnerable to “serious harm.” In September of 2017, Hurricane Irma struck Miami, forcing the evacuation of 6.5 million people. Seventy-five people died. Lolita was left behind.

Illustration by Corey Brickley/High Country News

A killer whale’s brain has the tissue and structure necessary to support high-order thinking and complex processes such as language, self-awareness, and consciousness of visceral feelings, like empathy, embarrassment, and loneliness. Killer whales are highly social with unique cultures and languages. Tokitae’s group, the southern resident killer whales, eat only salmon and squid and live in the waters off the southern tip of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. There are three subpods—J, K, and L—and Tokitae is from L pod. Each pod has a distinct set of shared vocalizations—a pod song. It’s not inherent; it’s learned. Tokitae still sings her pod song. After 49 years, she hasn’t forgotten.

Pat Sykes, a former Seaquarium employee, remembered Lolita’s early days at the aquarium, when she was still just a baby. “The skin on her back cracked and bled from the sun and wind exposure,” Sykes said. “She wouldn’t eat the diet of frozen herring. … At night, she cried.”

Throughout history, captivity has been a major US industry. According to Department of Justice statistics, since 1970, the year Tokitae was captured, the national incarceration rate increased by 700 percent. As of November 2018, more than 14,000 immigrant children are incarcerated in camps operated by the federal government. Since 2017, at least six children have died in custody, or immediately upon release.

In 1925, more than 60,000 Native American children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools. Many experienced treatment tantamount to torture. Many ran away. Some died, trying to find their way home. Between 1879 and 1918, nearly 200 children were buried at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. There were at least 150 other such schools in operation during the same period.

A disproportionate number of Indigenous women go missing every year, enough to spark international outcry from tribal communities across the United States and Canada. Many of the women are never found, and some are found murdered. The movement to raise awareness of this horror is referred to as the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. At a recent Lummi Nation gathering, women sang and danced in honor of our lost sisters. Little Lummi girls held signs saying, “MMIW—I’m not next.”

If vulnerable people are taken from their families against their will, and they die, the charges against the perpetrators are kidnapping, and murder. If killer whales are my relations under the waves, and if Tokitae dies alone, 5,500 kilometers from home, and if her body is quietly disposed of after a lifetime of exploitation for profit, are kidnapping, enslavement, and murder the crimes that have been committed?

Because poisons accumulate in their blubber, killer whales are more vulnerable than most animals to environmental toxins. Problems associated with chronic exposure to toxins intensify when killer whales go hungry and blubber is metabolized into their bloodstream. Toxins are also passed through the mother’s milk, but approximately 70 percent of southern resident killer whale pregnancies are lost due to nutritional stress. There simply aren’t enough fish anymore.

On September 25, 2019, the United Nations released a report by its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which presented the stark truth about rising temperatures, ocean acidification, declining oxygen levels and threats to crucial marine ecosystems. The impact of all these changes, the report noted, will be felt in increased weather disasters, rising sea levels, the proliferation of pathogens and threats to human food security.

This grim assessment by the IPCC has one major purpose: it is supposed to influence the decisions of the world’s leaders. But those leaders don’t seem convinced. Across the western hemisphere, Indigenous communities fight to protect our homelands against destructive practices by governments and corporations. But we consistently come up against a different world view: one that has no interest in protecting salmon or our relations under the waves, doesn’t believe in the interconnection of all things, and stands apart from the rest of nature, insisting that humans “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

As a species, humans have followed this biblical directive to the exclusion of all reason. There are environmental protection laws, but those continue to place the health of the planet below the health of the bottom line.

Last fall, I went fishing with a Lummi elder—a fisherman with more than 40 years of experience on the water. The boat broke down 20 minutes from shore. As we waited for a tow, a skiff made its way toward us. It was another pair of fishermen—a father and son out since daybreak.

“We’re starving out here,” said the man. “We only caught one fish.”

After accounting for fuel, their take-home pay would be .08 cents. In Lummi culture, a fisherman is esteemed as someone who feeds the people. But this has become increasingly difficult.

After the boy and his father motored away, the elder fisherman sat back in a folding chair and gave a heavy sigh, “‘Stick and stay and make her pay,’ is what we say. … ‘Be one of the first ones on the water and one of the last to leave.’ Live by those rules and sooner or later you’re going to catch ’em. I guess not anymore.”

This story was recorded in Klallam territory, Washington in 1925:

“These people were blackfish (killer whales). They invited him in and gave him something to eat. One day he fell asleep and when he woke he heard people outside the house as though they were lifting something heavy. Then they were quiet. He went out for he thought they had a whale. He saw nothing but a diver. He asked what they were trying to move. They said they wanted to move the whale, but it was nothing but a diver duck. He took the duck by the leg and moved it. They thought he was a great man to be able to move such a monster. They asked him what power he wanted.”

This story says two things: first, nature is reciprocal. It will nourish us and give us opportunities to return the favor. Second, if the blackfish want their whale moved, and we move her, they will grant us power.

When I entered the killer whale arena, I walked up to the edge of Tokitae’s tank. She swam close—right up against the wall—and stayed there, suspended at the surface. A couple of Seaquarium employees stood watch, but aside from them, I was alone with her. I sang her a song, and she made vocalizations back to me. Eventually, a noisy school group and other people trickled in. I took a seat to watch the show. Rock and roll blared through the loudspeakers, a young woman in a wetsuit tossed fish into Tokitae’s mouth, a video on a jumbotron talked about how Tokitae was loved and cared for while her wild relatives were going extinct. I felt horribly sad.

Then, there was a new feeling. Seeing Tokitae there in that tiny pool, knowing she’d spent nearly five decades there, raised doubts. What if returning her to the Salish Sea was the wrong thing to do? Even with the sea sanctuary proposed for her retirement, how would she adjust? I stayed until the young employees told me to leave, but on the way to my hotel, the question split me in two. It was wrong that she was there to begin with, but what if we were wrong on all sides on what to do with her?

I drove out to the lighthouse on Key Biscayne. I rolled up my pants and waded in the ocean. I looked out to the water and asked for an answer. As rarely ever happens, an answer came: in 1970, when Tokitae was taken, the courts didn’t see her abduction as a crime. But if the capture was carried out today, the perpetrators would be arrested and prosecuted, and the whales would be released.

We have ended the practice of killer whale abduction because it is brutal. Now it’s time to take another step. If the blackfish want their whale moved, and we move her, they will grant us power; the power to heal our relationship with the natural world.

This article was written with the support of the National Geographic Explorers program.