MIAMI — Tokitae is the last surviving orca of the whales that were captured from Puget Sound and sold into captivity.
KING 5 was there when Tokitae was violently taken from her pod in August 1970 near Whidbey Island's Penn Cove.
People who were trapping the whales to sell to aquariums were using planes to spot them in the ocean and explosives to separate the adults from the young.
Several orcas died during the roundups.
Tokitae was sold to the Miami Seaquarium for about $20,000. She was believed to be just four years old.
The Lhaq'temish people, also known as the Lummi Nation, have been fighting for Tokitae's return since the day she was captured. They also call her Sk'alich'elh-tenaut, a name that means "home."
The below gallery depicts whale-catching operations in Washington State in the 1970s:
Photos of orca-capturing operations in Washington State
Tokitae arrived in Miami in late September of 1970. She was said to be "depressed" upon her arrival, refusing to eat.
Over the next fifty-plus years, Tokitae performed for crowds of hundreds under the name Lolita.
In September 2020, members of the Lummi Nation went to Miami to mark 50 years since Tokitae arrived at the Seaquarium.
In August 2021, The Dolphin Company purchased the Seaquarium, and as a condition of the sale, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the company they had to retire Tokitae.
A month later, the USDA then released a report showing that the conditions Tokitae was living in were impacting her health.
She was being fed "poor quality" rotting food, the water in her tank was dirty and her trainers "disregarded veterinary instructions," making her perform despite her injuries.
Since Tokitae's retirement, her care was taken over by a team of independent veterinarians and her health began to improve. The new owner of the Miami Seaquarium told a Lummi Elder that he would support Tokitae's relocation if certain conditions were met.
Then in March 2023, the day that so many had been waiting for arrived: the aquarium announced that it was on board with plans to send the orca back to the Salish Sea.
The owners of the Miami Seaquarium announced a "formal and binding agreement" with Friends of Lolita to begin the process of returning the orca to Puget Sound. The joint effort is "working toward and hope the relocation will be possible in the next 18 to 24 months."
In early May, a joint report between the Miami Seaquarium and Friends of Lolita announced that Tokitae is in "good condition," and that plans to relocate her are moving forward.
The plan to move Tokitae needs to be approved by federal authorities before concrete steps can be taken.
The approval process for Tokitae's move
A number of steps need to be completed before work can begin on moving Tokitae back to the Pacific Northwest.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be a big part of the process, but the agency has not received an application or official plan, so it is not sharing what the approval process will include.
The USDA will also be part of the approval process, then the plan will move to the State of Washington.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says a number of permits will need to be approved, including one for a hydraulic project approval. Anyone planning a project in or near state waters needs this permit.
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources will study the proposed area for the sea pen to make sure the environment will not be disrupted.