Miami Seaquarium ‘100% committed’ to effort to retire captive orca

MIAMI – The health and future of the beloved captive orca at the Miami Seaquarium in Virginia Key was the focus of discussion during a conference Tuesday at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami.

For the first time, the leadership of the Miami Seaquarium stated publicly that they are on board with efforts to retire the 56-year-old orca, known as Tokitae or Toki, to a sea pen in her native waters.

The Seaquarium is “100% committed,” said Eduardo Albor, the chief executive officer of the Dolphin Company, the owner of the Miami Seaquarium.

The considerations include moving the orca, formerly known as performer Lolita, out of the 80-foot long and 35-foot wide tank and into a more spacious enclosure.

“We are just taking it day by day, and learning from the Dolphin Company and the veterinarians,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. “We have a team of veterinarians.”

The orca, also known as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, was torn from her pod in the Salish Sea about half a century ago. The Lummi Nation has been trying for years to have her returned.

“She wants her environment back, her home back,” said Raynell Morris, of Friends of Toki.

Before she can be moved, however, the hurdles are many and challenging.

Federal regulatory agencies like NOAA and the USDA would need to approve such a move before it can happen and Toki, who was officially retired from performing in March, has been dealing with a serious respiratory illness ever since. At one point, she was even close to death.

A special antibiotic flown in from Japan has helped to stabilize her. Though she is getting stronger, she still has her down days.

“The first thing is her health and taking care of her as much as we can here and then we absolutely want to look forward to what is possible,” Pritam Singh, who leads Friends of Toki, said. “Of course, the best would be to bring her back to where she came from.”

Making her comfortable is now paramount. Friends of Toki is working with the Seaquarium to improve her tank’s water quality, installing new filters and new chillers that can bring the temperature down below 55 degrees, temperatures she’ll have to reacclimate to if she gets to one day make a journey back home.

“I do not know what the prospects for that are,” Levine Cava said. “Again, I take it day by day based on the veterinary expertise.”

And though the mood was hopeful Tuesday, activists who, for years, have been lobbying for her release, are just wishing things were happening at faster pace.

“This animal has told us over and over and over again ‘I can make the journey home,’” activist Suzanne McAllister said. “What I need to hear is: Where are the federal agencies? Where are the ones who are going to give the okay?”

Singh said his group has had initial conversations with the aforementioned federal agencies.

About the Author:

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