r.i.p. tokitae (1966-2023)

The Environment

Tokitae, the southern resident orca that was captured as a juvenile from the pacific northwest in 1970 and relocated to an aquarium in Miami, has died. While we normally cover two subjects in the Weekly Current, we feel that after 57 years of sacrifice, Lolita (as she is known locally), deserves the spotlight alone.

We will explore some of the most common reactions to Tokitae’s death we’ve seen on the internet and use them as discussion points.

Let’s dive in: “How was it legal for a wild orca to be captured and relocated to an aquarium in Miami?”

The world was a lot different in the 60’s and at the time, capture of wild orcas for aquariums was shockingly common. It was also totally normal for pregnant women to smoke cigarettes, cars weren’t required to have seatbelts, and there was that whole segregation thing…but we digress.

It’s estimated that as many as 60-70 wild orcas were removed from the pacific ocean for this purpose and by the mid 1970’s, approximately 40% of the Southern Resident orca population had been captured or killed during capture.

“Taking orcas from the wild should be illegal!”

We agree, but it kinda already is in the United States. When the marine mammal protection act became law in the United States in 1972, it effectively ended the practice of orca capture in the Pacific and no known orcas have been removed from it since. Unfortunately, capture continued as a practice in Iceland and Russia for decades that followed.

“Are orcas allowed to breed in captivity?”

Today in North America, the majority of orcas that remain under human care were born there, but debate as to whether breeding should continue is ongoing. In California, France and Canada, for example, breeding of orcas was outlawed in 2016, 2017, and 2019 respectively, though it is still legal elsewhere in the US and abroad.

“These kinds of facilities are important for orca rescue and rehabilitation”

There has been only one documented case of humans intervening to successfully rescue, rehabilitate and return an orca to the wild, and it did not include an aquarium.

“Anybody who pays money to see captive orcas is perpetuating the problem”

The economic theory of supply and demand is pretty clear on this one, but who is to blame, the suppliers or the consumers? Both?

“These orcas inspire millions of people, the benefit outweighs the cost”

The “end justifies the means” argument. To some, it makes perfect sense, while to others, it’s an ethical slippery slope. We won’t try to convince you either way, but challenge you to think about it.

“The veterinarians, trainers, and caregivers to these orcas are part of the problem”

Disagree. The overworked, underpaid marine biologist that pours everything they have into the care of these animals plays a distinctly different role than the capturer or the people that paid them to do it. Blame the people that created the mess, not those who are trying to clean it up.

“We failed her”

Indeed we did.

Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes.