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Famed Southern Resident orca Tokitae dies in captivity

57-year-old killer whale was preparing to return to Salish Sea

By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

Tokitae, the 57-year-old Southern Resident orca long-confined in the Miami Seaquarium, died Friday afternoon, Aug. 18, after 53 years in captivity. 

The orca, also known as Lolita or Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, was the subject of significant controversy in recent years as Indigenous communities and celebrities called for her to be returned to the Salish Sea. 

Tokitae spent the majority of her life under human care, and was the only remaining Southern Resident in captivity. 

Members of the Lummi Nation, who consider orcas their “relatives under the water,” were hopeful for her return, which seemed more likely in recent months as nonprofits made plans to construct a 15-acre sea pen somewhere in the Salish Sea. In March this year, the Seaquarium supported the plans, funded in part by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. 

“The Lummi Nation is saddened by the news that our beloved Orca relative has passed away,” Lummi Nation Chairman Tony Hillaire said in a statement. “Our hearts are with all those impacted by this news; are hearts are with her family.” 

“We stand in solidarity with our Lummi members whom poured their hearts and souls into bringing Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home,” Hillaire continued. “We will do all we can to start healing from this news and will begin talking about what needs to happen next.” 

Her health, too, seemed to improve in recent months, though the Seaquarium reported the orca began to show “serious signs of discomfort” beginning Wednesday, Aug. 16. 

“Toki was an inspiration to all who had the fortune to hear her story and especially to the Lummi nation that considered her family,” the Miami Seaquarium announced on Facebook Friday. “Those of us who have had the honor and privilege to spend time with her will forever remember her beautiful spirit.” 

This story was updated at 7:53 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18 to include remarks from Tony Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Nation. 

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