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Questions, answers on Tokitae's journey back to Pacific Northwest

Vinick is a board member for Friends of Toki, the executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project & was former project manager for the Keiko Project.

NOVA SCOTIA, Canada — Charles Vinick is the executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project and a board member for Friends of Toki, a non-profit organization collaborating with new Miami Seaquarium owner The Dolphin Company, to ensure her health, welfare and other factors contributing to her quality of life. He was also project manager for the Keiko project, which returned the orca featured in 'Free Willy' to the ocean. Here, he answers questions about Tokitae's journey and plans for a whale sanctuary in Nova Scotia to house other belugas and orcas. 

On the timeline for Toki's release: 

We’re going to do this as expeditiously as possible. I’ve read the media just as you have, all your readers and everyone who’s watching has, and there’s all kinds of speculation about how quickly it will be done or how long it may take. I don’t think we know the precise answer to that but we have a team of people in terms of- the owner, Eduardo Albour, of the Dolphin company, in terms of Friends of Toki, in terms of the Lummi Nation and all the Indigenous tribal groups here in the Pacific Northwest who also see her as a family member, and a member of their family who lives beneath the waves- and they’re committed to bringing her home as well. 

We have all of this lifeforce gathered together to bring her home- and it’s a tremendous opportunity that we have to work as expeditiously as possible to bring it to fruition.

On differences between life in a tank and life in the ocean:

You’re in wild ocean. And wild ocean has waves, it has currents, it has tides. Birds are flying across and resting on the surface. There’s a sandy bottom with crabs and critters, there are fish swimming through it. So the environment, by its very nature- cause it’s in nature- is dynamic- and that’s something you never have in a concrete tank. So that’s enriching for the animals.

On the moment news of Toki's release became official:

For all of us who work in this area, it was a tremendously joyful, hopeful experience. But I think it’s important to remember, there have been people here in Washington state, in the Pacific Northwest, and really around the world, who’ve been looking to bring Toki home, for decades. People like Howie Garrett, Ken Balcomb, before he passed away, many many people have been working on this.

It just happens that we’re in a moment in time when we have three things. We have an owner of a park, Eduardo Albour, owner of the Dolphin Company, who says he wants to take her home if it’s possible. We have Pritam Singh, who has invested more than a million dollars already as the co-founder of Friends of Toki, to really move this forward, and provide for her care and welfare, an independent veterinary analysis on-site in the park and now going forward, and we have Jim Irsay, who has stepped forward and said, he will help fund it completely or help fund it to the extent necessary, really with no holds barred. Those three ingredients have never been together before. So that’s what makes this special.

It’s not that we’re different from the others that’s tried before- it’s simply that this is a moment in time when it can happen if we have the regulatory approvals and continue to have her health stabilized in the way it is today.

On concerns about her health:

First of all, she has had some health issues over the years. Certainly, the public reports from the Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in 2021, showed that she had some severe illness. In October of 2022, she had a difficult time, but she is receiving medication, her veterinarians today say she is in better health, stable health, than she’s been in at any time in a couple of years they’ve been examining her and providing for her veterinary care.

She is a robust, active animal today. When you visit her, as I’ve had the privilege of doing, she is active, she is responsive, she’s just full of life, and she has demonstrated a will to live that frankly, almost no other whale has ever demonstrated. Fifty-six, 57 years old, ups and downs but very active, robust and stable today and her veterinarians today have said, she’s healthy enough for a transport. She can certainly be in a new environment.

Are there risks at all? Of course, there are some risks. There’s risks today for any one of us, wherever we are. But is this an opportunity to bring her home? Yes, it is.

On the possible transport of dolphins living with her now:

All of us are social animals and everything we know scientifically about orca are that they are very social. If you look at it scientifically, their brains are more convoluted in the communication and emotion of the human brain, so we’ve seen evidence, certainly here with the southern residents, of their connection to one another, their connection to family, so having her with a companion, even if it’s a dolphin companion she knows well, is certainly something that is ideal, so that is an objective.

We have to make sure it can be done, we have to make sure the regulators agree with all of these steps along the way but certainly that’s an objective. She’ll also come home with the trainers, the people she is most dependent on, and who have been working with her because she knows them, she’s comfortable with them, she enjoys being with them. You can see that when she approaches them.

We want to make sure everything about this work is done responsibly, done carefully, abiding by all regulations and following the science.

Along with his work on Friends of Toki, Vinick serves as the executive director for the Whale Sanctuary Project, which is working to build a sanctuary in Nova Scotia to house other marine mammals removed from marine parks. 

On choosing the location for the sanctuary:

We looked at about 130 sites in British Columbia, Washington State and Nova Scotia looking for what we think is the ideal site for a very large whale sanctuary. 

A sanctuary that could have eight or 10 beluga whales, perhaps two or three orcas, separated by double nets and the like, and in looking at all of those locations, the site we found in the town of Wine Harbour in Port Hilford Bay, which is also called Indian Harbour, is the site that we think is ideal because it has tremendous flushing of the water, it has tidal flow, we’ve done hydrodynamic studies of it, the environment works to both protect the animals from extreme storms, but also to give them a beautiful natural environment in which to thrive.

What can be learned from the Whale Sanctuary Project's work to inform the journey for Tokitae?

First of all, I think the situations are different. We should look at them differently. The situation with Toki, with Lolita, Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut, she has many names, is really a unique situation. She is an animal who was captured before the U.S. enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act. So she’s pre-act. She’s also the only southern resident in captivity. So I think we should treat her separately. We should treat her as the unique animal she is and look to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agencies, and the state agencies, to work with us to bring her back home to a netted enclosure where she can be cared for for the rest of her life.

She’s entertained millions of people, she has, frankly, made millions of dollars for the different people who’ve owned the park over the years. I think we owe her something back and I think this is something we can do for her at this point in her life.

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