LUMMI NATION, Wash. — In the 1960s and '70s, Washington state was selling one of its greatest treasures for just a few hundred dollars.
Orcas were hunted, captured and sent to aquariums and amusement parks around the world. Many of the orcas who were captured have died, except one.
Now members of the Lummi Nation are fighting for her return.
A sacred connection
On the shore of the Salish Sea, members of the Lummi Nation pray for the return of someone they consider family: Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut, a Southern Resident orca who was captured from the Puget Sound more than 50 years ago and sent to a marine mammal park in Miami.
“This is her home. Not in Miami in a cement tank," said Squil-le-he-le (Raynell Morris), a Lummi elder and the former associate director of intergovernmental affairs for the White House. "That's not where she belongs. When they stole her, it affected us. Our families were broken. We ache for our relative."
Tah-Mahs (Ellie Kinley), another member of the Lummi Nation, is also working to bring the orca home. She explained that the tribe's sacred connection to the whales goes back to a time immemorial.
“We were always out in the water at the same time with them, because we're each chasing the same fish, the same salmon,” said Tah-Mahs.
The Lummi Nation, also known as the Lhaq'temish people, call the whale Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut. She’s also affectionately known as Tokitae. But in Miami – where she’s been held in captivity for the last 50 years – she's known as Lolita.
She is the legal property of the Miami Seaquarium.
"It's time to undo that wrong and return her back to the Salish Sea,” said Tah-Mahs.
Both Tah-Mahs and Squil-le-he-le have visited Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut in Miami multiple times. They are also the force behind the latest effort to bring her home.
“When you are close to her, you can feel the sadness. You can just feel that she's just hanging on. It is just taking a lot longer than we had ever hoped,” said Squil-le-he-le.
Orca captures in Washington
Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut’s story begins in 1970, around the time KING 5 began investigating orca captures in Puget Sound.
“[The capture teams] had aircraft flying over the San Juan [Islands] to spot them," said Squil-le-he-le. "Then they had boats with explosives to separate the adults from the babies. They only wanted the babies."
It was during such a capture in August 1970 that Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut was violently taken from her family in Washington’s Penn Cove. She was 4 years old.
“When she was brought to a pen on the dock by the harbor, she was crying," Squil-le-he-le said. "Her mother was crying. People around Penn Cove, the older people can still hear the cries, the screams."
“You can see so much in her eye. She is traumatized,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network, as he pointed to a close-up picture of what is thought to be Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut’s eye peering out of a net after her capture.
The Whale Center on Whidbey Island contains displays of photos from several whale captures that took place in the early 1970s.
“They were considered, ‘These are dangerous,’ and ‘We don't want them in our waters.’ So that's how [people] thought about them,” said Garrett. “So yeah, if you want to capture one, you're not killing it, you know, you're just giving it a life in show business. That, I guess, was the way that they were thought about.”
After her capture, Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut was sold to the Miami Seaquarium. The animal rights group PETA claims she is kept in the smallest orca tank in the world.
“It's shallow. So there's nowhere in her tank that's deep enough that she can dive,” said Tah-Mahs. “You'll see that there's two umbrellas for the trainers that are working with her. But yet there's no shade for her.”
'Poor quality' conditions
Advocates redoubled their efforts to bring Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut home after discovering more about the state of her tank and care.
A 2021 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report of the Miami Seaquarium found Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut is fed "poor-quality fish" and "capelin that smelled bad." An inspector noted her health had declined as a result, saying her "sickness [was] caused by feeding the poor-quality capelin,” and the water in her tank was dirty. The report said her trainers “disregarded veterinary instructions” to make her perform despite her injuries.
“This is an extreme case of torture and abuse,” said Garrett. “She's been treated very, very badly by a lot of the staff.”
In March, The Dolphin Company purchased the Miami Seaqarium. As a condition of the sale, the company had to retire Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut. For now, she remains in Miami.
The company did not return KING 5's request for comment.
“She has now gone from the corporate books from an asset to a liability," said Squil-le-he-le. "So that's a huge incentive for them to come to the table and want to partner with us."
The journey home
Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut's advocates are working to get an independent veterinarian to assess her condition and determine whether she could safely make the 3,000-mile journey back home.
“It's been done since the 1960s. Hundreds of times orcas have been transported by plane,” said Garrett.
For the trip, Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut would be coaxed into a custom-made stretcher and lifted out of her Miami aquarium with a crane. The 20-foot, 7,000-pound orca would then be lowered into a small container not much bigger than herself and filled with ice water to prevent overheating.
From there she would be loaded onto a cargo plane for a six-hour trip to the Bellingham airport.
Next, she would be loaded onto a barge, which will transport her to ancestral waters in the Salish Sea.
Her new home would look very different than the cement aquarium she has spent the last half-century in. The plan, created in collaboration with wildlife researchers and marine mammal veterinarians, calls for a netted underwater pen 250 feet long, 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep in fresh ocean water.
At Cherry Point, a sacred Lummi tribal site, Tah-Mahs and Squil-le-he-le held a prayer ceremony for Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut.
“The scent of the cedar brings the salmon home. By praying over the cedar, [it] is letting her know when that scent travels across the water to her, she’s home. It’s calling her home like it calls the salmon home,” explained Squil-le-he-le.
Here at home and in Miami, a special call comes from her family.
“When we went to Miami, we brought our cedar with us to put it into the water outside her tank so she could smell that, and know that’s home,” said Tah-Mahs.
“Her mother is 93. She's 56. She has 37 plus beautiful years left of her life,” said Squil-le-he-le. “When she comes home, she’ll be comforted. Her struggle’s over. I can see it.”
How you can help
The plan to bring the orca home will cost about $1.3 million and much of that money has already been pledged by celebrities and others. For more information on the fight to bring Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut home, visit Sacred Sea's website.