Tribe returns to Seaquarium for annual quest to bring whale home

Lummi Nation believes its time Lolita retires

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – Many believe that Lolita, the whale that the Lummi Nation knows as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, is finally getting a much-needed break as the Miami Seaquarium has been closed to visitors since March because of COVID-19.

This is the longest she’s gone without performing and Thursday marked 50 years to the day that a baby 4-year-old orca was bought to the Seaquarium after being forcibly taken from her family and sold here.

Tribal elders from the Lummi Nation, the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, were here in South Florida outside the seaquarium in a peaceful protest to continue their quest to liberate Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. They came in prayer to mark, what is for them, a somber anniversary.

“Under our inherent rights, she’s a relative. We have a right to call her home,” said Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris of the Lummi Nation.

The ongoing mission to finally bring her home to her birth waters of the Salish Sea, where her family, L pod of the Southern Resident orcas, still swim free.

Lummi Nation tribe members traveled from the Pacific coast to Miami to demand that the Miami Seaquarium free their sister Tokitae. (Local 10 News)

The Lummi Nation has vowed to bring her home as their sacred obligation and they believe after 50 years, it’s time for her to retire.

"We’ve been in quarantine for five months and she’s been in quarantine for 50 years. She hasn’t been around any of her family. It’s time,” Tah-Mahs Ellie Kinley of Lummi Nation said: "

Activist Thomas Copeland said the tank in which Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut lives are not fit for her size.

“At it’s deepest point on that angle, it’s 20-feet deep. Now, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut at the age of roughly 54, she’s 22 feet long. The simple math tells you that the animal is too big for this tank,” Copeland said.

Lummi Nation members and their supporters continue their efforts to save Lolita from confinement at the Miami Seaquarium. (Local 10 News)

For the Lummis and animal rights activists who’ve fought for decades for her release the time has come for the whale’s freedom.

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is her real name, which means “nice day, pretty colors” in Coast Salish. To the Lummi Nation, she isn’t just a killer whale belonging to the oceanic dolphin family; the orca is a relative and a member of their tribe. They believe their treaty rights were violated when she was taken from her family in Puget Sound, an estuary on the northwestern coast of the state of Washington.

The Lummis have filed an intent to sue the Miami Seaquarium. They’re hoping it doesn’t come to that.

“They know we come in peace. We come with a request to partner to do this. They can do the right thing after 50 years and work with us to bring her home, to our family, to her family, to the Salish sea,” Raynell Morris said.

Local 10 reached out to the Seaquarium for comment, but they have not responded.

Lummi Nation members and supporters continue to visit the Miami Seaquarium to demand they free Tokitae. (Local 10 News)

In the past, however, they say Lolita is loved and is well cared for and that she would not survive the long journey to the Pacific Northwest.

Activists have been in a decades-long fight to free her for more than 25 years. In October 2018, a federal appeals court rejected a petition to reopen a lawsuit over the Seaquarium’s treatment of the killer whale.

The Miami Herald reported in 2018 that "the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit determined that while Lolita’s case was ‘unique’ due to her age and the continuing medical care present at the aquarium, there was ‘no threat of serious harm’ sufficient to trigger a violation of the federal animal welfare law. The court also noted that there is ‘no realistic means for returning to the wild without being harmed.’ "

The Lummis said they have a plan in place with the Orca Network, the Whale Sanctuary Project, and with veterinarians and marine biologists on a way to safely bring her back to the Salish Sea.

They have identified a cove where she could live out the rest of her days in freedom close to her family where they still swim free.

About the Authors:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true-crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local