Feature

The Race to Free Washington's Last Orca in Captivity

A southern resident's violent capture off Whidbey Island was the original sin of a now-defunct local industry. Decades later, a Lummi-led effort to bring her home is on the verge of an improbable breakthrough.

By Benjamin Cassidy February 8, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Locals can still hear the sharp cries of orcas during the 1970 Penn Cove capture. Photograph: Wallie V. Funk Photographs, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington University

The whales knew speedboats were after them again. In 1970, about 100 orcas had convened in the cold waters off the islands north of Seattle for their annual mid-summer’s romp. Known as a “superpod,” members of all three southern resident lineages line up in a somewhat mysterious greeting that conjures both traditional Native potlatches and awkward middle school dances. Then they go off. They belly flop, back dive, and breach. They feast on Chinook salmon. Sometimes, yes, they mate. But in early August of 1970, the propulsive whir of a motor in the water crashed the party.

For years crews had chased orcas around the shards of land in the Salish Sea. Some whales had bullet holes in their skin from fishermen who viewed the mysterious “blackfish” as competition. Others had been captured by an operation called Namu Inc. Its leaders, Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry, sought young calves—smaller, and thus easier to sell and transport to oceanariums around the world.

Hopped up on caffeine aboard a boat that could reach 60 miles per hour, Griffin spotted the superpod rounding Possession Point off the southernmost tip of Whidbey Island. He trailed them closely and prepped for a major haul.

The orcas had other ideas. Realizing the capture team was at it again, the pods split up, communicating via their sophisticated language of calls and high-pitched whistles. The older bulls, male orcas, would swim east to create a diversion. The mothers and their calves would hook around the island and head north, breaking for Deception Pass and the hazy promise of open ocean just beyond.

Two members of Lummi Nation look out at the Salish Sea.

Members of Lummi Nation lost a spiritual relative when an orca was taken from the Salish Sea.

Image: Mike Kane

The split initially shook Griffin. After losing sight of the whales, he ditched his boat for a chartered seaplane, hoping to spot dorsal fins from above. Goldsberry, meanwhile, borrowed a seiner out of Tacoma and directed it toward the narrow Saratoga Passage between Whidbey and Camano islands. The swaggering former commercial fisherman kept in contact with Griffin, who later detected the female fins trying to escape through the Passage from his vantage overhead. “Everyone is there,” Griffin radioed down to Goldsberry. The capture vessels caught up, encircling that half of the superpod. They corralled the whales into Penn Cove, a thumb-shaped inlet between San de Fuca and Coupeville on Whidbey Island.

Crew members set up at an old Standard Oil dock and got to the unwieldy work of extracting creatures weighing thousands of pounds from their native habitat. They used ropes to lasso whales that thrashed and wriggled within a netted pen suspended from the water’s surface by rope and floats. Divers wrested mothers away from their calves as the rest of the superpod looked on from just outside the corkline—the decoys had hurried up the coast to support their families. Over a week, the men of Namu Inc. hoisted more than a handful of whales belly-down on hammock-like slings before depositing them onto flatbed trucks.

The capture played out in broad daylight. Pleasure boats floated nearby, and drivers pulled over to glimpse the spectacle unfolding in a quiet seaside community. Some gaped more at the display than the morality. Capture was fine, one said, “as long as they don’t kill or mistreat them.” Others, however, sensed the intrinsic wrong. Twelve-year-old Sooz Konopik squinted back tears as she and her clan of Penn Cove kids watched from atop a hill. Down on the dock, diver John Crowe cried as he heard the shrill, constant calls of the orcas in distress. Many locals can still remember the sounds dissonant enough to send a nearby house cat into a frenzy. The humanlike wailing ingrained the notion in some onlookers that these creatures, with their close-knit familial bonds, were similar to people.

Griffin wanted to introduce them to the world. Between captures, he’d duck into the living room of the nearby Captain Whidbey Inn and dial aquariums from around the globe on a French antique-style phone. At night, divers and other whale wranglers imbibed at the bar.

One by one, these aquatic cowboys ferried the nabbed orcas to Seattle Marine Aquarium on Pier 56, Griffin’s privately owned enterprise and a precursor to the far more animal-friendly Seattle Aquarium that now operates on the Waterfront. Activists from the Progressive Animal Welfare Society picketed the site along Alaskan Way, raising signs that said Whale Power and Stop Exploiting Our Whales.

Still, the protesters couldn’t stop the orca sales. The detained whales were shipped to marine parks on four continents for the going rate of $20,000 an animal. They were expected to live for decades.

Only one of the calves actually did.

 

A black fin disappears below the water as Empire of the Sun’s “Alive” blares in the circular Whale Stadium at Miami Seaquarium early in 2021. Nearby, trainers clad in scuba suits stand on a pool island and clap in unison to the beat of this electropop anthem, coaxing those in attendance to do the same. Then, just as the chorus hits its climax (“alive, alive!”), a shiny mass breaks the surface. Pandalike in pigmentation but sleek as a smaller dolphin, an 8,000-pound orca shoots diagonally toward the sky. At the apex, she jerks her head back and then downward, a nod of sorts to the wooing audience, before completing her signature aerial arc. 

That the 20-foot whale doesn’t hit her head during her descent is just as impressive as her theatrics. The star of the Seaquarium swims in a tank that measures no more than 8o feet wide in any direction and just 20 feet at its deepest point—a kiddie pool for a whale the size of Lolita. That’s the name the marine park bestowed upon the southern resident orca it acquired from Namu Inc. in 1970. For nearly all of her almost 52 years in captivity, a whale weaned on voluminous Northwest waters has performed for gawking tourists in the country’s smallest orca tank.

After her seizure from Penn Cove, the L-pod calf endured just about the longest journey one can take in the continental U.S., flown and trucked from the slate seas of Washington to a turquoise-ringed island off Miami. The marine park there was purportedly the world’s largest upon its opening in 1955. (The TV show Flipper was later filmed on-site.) Another southern resident, Hugo, initially offered Lolita some companionship. But his death in 1980 left her alone with dolphins in the Whale Bowl for multiple shows per day, rewarded with bites of food.

For decades legions of supporters around the globe have called for her release, from third graders on Whidbey Island singing “Lolita Come Home” to PETA to Sir Elton John. An animal rights activist once lay inside a bathtub for a month outside the stadium to mimic the whale’s constricted confinement.

For just as long these efforts have been rebuffed, both in court and by the Seaquarium’s operators. First Wometco Enterprises, a former movie theater empire that came to rely on the Seaquarium’s cash cow of a whale, refused calls to return her. Later, Palace Entertainment, a subsidiary of a Madrid-based leisure park conglomerate, denied them as well. Both have defended their treatment of the animals under their watch. “Her longevity is a testament to the care that she’s received over her time at Miami Seaquarium,” says Nick Paradise, a spokesperson for Palace Entertainment. A peppy trainer at that 2021 performance told the crowd, “Lolita is happy, she’s healthy, and still goingggg strong!”

But a couple of recent developments have sparked new concerns about her health and galvanized the effort to release her to the Salish Sea.

At the Seaquarium's Whale Stadium, a concrete island bisects the tank, leaving the orca performing as Lolita even less room to swim.

In August 2021, Palace Entertainment announced it had agreed to sell its Seaquarium lease to a Cancún firm that runs more than 30 parks internationally. The bombshell lay in what the announcement didn’t mention. Unlike its predecessors, the Dolphin Company, which hasn’t traditionally owned orcas, didn’t rule out retiring Lolita.

Several weeks later, the urgency to free her both ratcheted up and became more complicated. A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report cited the Seaquarium for a litany of animal welfare violations under Palace Entertainment’s watch. Across the park, mismatched animals had turned violent in their shared living quarters. In the fray, Lolita’s care had suffered. Against the wishes of the attending veterinarian, the training curator had slashed her food intake and made her perform head-in entry jumps after she’d suffered an injury to her lower jaw, the report said. She’d eaten rotting food and floated in contaminated water. Later, the Seaquarium admitted she’d fallen ill. One former employee, who requested anonymity amid a federal investigation into the park, called the situation a “train wreck.”

Miami-Dade County, which owns the Seaquarium’s land, said the transfer of the marine park’s lease to a new operator would have to wait until Palace Entertainment addressed the infractions.

Activists will remind you that Lolita is already living on borrowed time. Well into her 50s, she’s eclipsed the normal lifespan of an orca in the wild—and long since surpassed the life expectancy of one captured.

As they await her fate, a band of whale fanatics in Washington—scientists, capture converts, and spiritual relatives—have advanced an ambitious plan to bring her back to the Salish Sea.

They could have come together much sooner.

 

Howard Garrett looking out at the Salish Sea.

A brother's request drew Howard Garrett to orcas and the Salish Sea.

Image: Mike Kane

Howard Garrett dons a Panama Jack hat, an aloha shirt, and a painted black mustache, his attempt to blend in with the tourists moseying toward the entrance of the Miami Seaquarium in 1999. By now he’s persona non grata on the premises. Since uprooting to a spartan studio on South Beach from Washington’s San Juan Island two years earlier, Garrett has hosted rallies, visited schools, and waged a media proxy war against the marine park that refuses to release the whale the surrounding throngs know as Lolita. To visit her, he must go incognito.

Garrett raised his hand when the Washington-based Free Lolita! campaign needed someone to apply heat on the ground in Florida. The son of an air force pilot and a musician, he protested “mightily” against the Vietnam War before fleeing to Europe and Canada to avoid the draft. Upon his return in 1972, he and some friends acquired land in New Mexico to build a commune. He was a well-established drifter when he traveled north in 1976 to see his half-brother in the San Juans. There they boarded a 19-foot Boston Whaler and, with a 300-millimeter camera in tow, helped confirm the inaugural tally of southern resident orcas.

If Garrett loses his beloved “Toki,” it’ll hit him like losing “a family member, a loved one.”

Image: Mike Kane

In the late 1970s, we were only beginning to grasp the vulnerability of a creature mythologized as a threat to humans—the killer whale. Counting the population was the first step toward understanding them. Today even casual observers of Seattle marine life can ballpark the current number of endangered southern residents (73). But just two months before the Penn Cove capture, a Seattle Daily Times piece observed, “Almost nothing is known of the killer whale.”

The spectacle on Whidbey Island sparked broader intrigue in the orcas. Shortly after Namu Inc. sailed away from Penn Cove, a few dead calves washed up on shore, their bellies slit and filled with rocks. A couple of well-intentioned locals had slashed part of the nets one night during the capture. But instead of liberating the superpod, they accidentally drowned several of its youngest whales, who got tangled in the remaining net. Fearing blowback, Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry’s team sunk the carcasses. A mother orca would drown that August too. The events were, in the whale world, the “original sin of the region,” says historian Jason Colby, author of Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator.

They were also totally legal. Only in 1971 did a bill pass that required pricey permits for every whale taken from Washington waters. The Endangered Species Act didn’t even exist yet.

A politician would have to see capture with his own eyes to hasten the end of this ignominious era in Washington. While sailing near Olympia in 1976, future secretary of state Ralph Munro witnessed a SeaWorld-commissioned whale-grab. Outraged, he dialed up attorney general Slade Gorton, backed a lawsuit, and that was that.

Munro, governor Mike Lowry, and Gorton, who’d go on to become a U.S. senator, later threw their support behind the first campaign to free Lolita. Garrett’s scientist brother, Kenneth Balcomb, was tapped to coauthor a comprehensive rehab and retirement plan for the whale.

 

“Ken Balcomb is to orcas what Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees,” a TV special once said of the bearded obsessive who surveyed the ocean in aviators. The U.S. Navy pilot and oceanographic specialist founded the Center for Whale Research in 1985, an institution at Friday Harbor that documents the behaviors of an extremely social and long misunderstood animal. His yard became a sort of Shangri-La for whale nerds during the summer. Marine mammal experts from as far as Argentina and the Netherlands camped out to study southern residents around the San Juans. 

A decade after the center’s opening, Balcomb unveiled a pitch he cowrote with Garrett to bring Lolita back to the Pacific Northwest. She could live in a netted sea pen as a team assessed her health. Ultimately, under careful monitoring on the open water, the aging orca could choose between reuniting with her family or remaining in a more natural state of confinement.

One obstacle remained: A slick-haired, round-faced businessman named Arthur Hertz. Ultimately, the Wometco Enterprises CEO just wasn’t interested in selling the Seaquarium’s prized attraction. In his office, a poster of Lolita reportedly loomed larger than a portrait of his own family. We treat her better than any human, he’d say.

Howard Garrett could never secure a meeting with this fixture of old Miami. Instead he led protests and ushered in less-than-flattering TV coverage of the local institution. “I don’t know if he’s sacrificed his life in his struggle to free Lolita,” a scornful Seaquarium publicist told the Miami New Times in 1999, “or if it’s made a life for him.” Hertz wasn’t any kinder. “I think he should get a job. The man is doing something because he visualizes an awful lot of money and fame.”

Living off macaroni and driving a Nissan with no AC in the Florida heat, Garrett had little luck drumming up financial support from locals. Hertz, a University of Miami Board of Trustees member, could lean on his political influence to squash donations and legislation. Celebrity backing, like a letter signed by Elton John that said he was “deeply moved by the efforts to free Lolita,” was mostly superficial. And the people of South Beach weren’t exactly taken by the animal welfare leaflets Garrett hawked outside clubs. Their going-out getup might include wearing a boa constrictor as an accessory, he recalls.

Today, the 76-year-old couldn’t seem more distant from that South Beach scene. Layered in flannel, he sits in front of a gray whale skull at the Langley Whale Center on Whidbey Island. This former fabric shop is now a project of the Orca Network, an educational nonprofit raising marine life awareness that Garrett founded with his wife, Susan Berta, two years after he retreated to Washington. The organization’s modest physical presence suits a whimsical little city where whale watching is a pastime. A large bell beckons anyone who’s spotted one in adjacent Saratoga Passage to come ding it, and even the social distancing stamps on the sidewalk pay homage to the animal.

The Orca Network is more prominent online. Sighting reports from among its 175,000-plus followers can set binocular-toting enthusiasts off on land-bound, storm chaser–like pursuits of the transitory whales.

Even by this subculture’s standards, Garrett’s enthusiasm runs high. When he learned about the complex call systems unique to different orca pods, “it was like discovering intelligent life on earth.” Southern residents, who eat mostly Chinook salmon, and transients, who dine on harbor seals and other marine mammals, coexisting a flipper’s length apart but never intermingling? Mind-blowing. “Totally separate cultures,” Garrett marvels.

Orca art inside the Langley Whale Center

A region's iconic animal appears in a variety of forms at the Langley Whale Center.

Image: Mike Kane

In the middle of his DIY Langley Whale Center is the sort of presentation board one might find at a science fair. It’s dedicated to his life’s project: Lolita. She goes by a different name around here. Tokitae, a Coast Salish greeting, was her original moniker before someone in Florida thought a cringey nod to Nabokov was a good idea. Garrett posts exhaustive updates about “Toki” on Orca Network’s pages, and he’s attached his name to an untold number of related lawsuits, including one that sought to liberate captive orcas using the 13th Amendment (it failed). In 2017, the mayor of Miami Beach lent Garrett the political ear he could never bend when he lived in Florida, drafting a resolution to free Tokitae—a symbolic measure—that passed unanimously.

Garrett, ever rigorous in detailing Toki’s anguish, left Miami feeling like he’d exhausted all paths to persuasion. But there was one avenue closer to home he’d neglected to explore.

 

The deluge came without notice. Record-breaking rains flooded all the roads in and out of Lummi Reservation in northwest Washington this past November, buffeting the constellation of islands north of Seattle. The Lhaq’temish—also known as the Lummi, survivors of a prophesied great flood—used police boats to rescue families and a dump truck to haul food. Some took shelter at the tribe’s casino.

In the aftermath, from her home on high ground, Tah-Mahs (Ellie Kinley) gazed out at the Salish Sea and fretted about the salmon eggs. For three years no one had fished sockeye. Due to an unsavory combination—sea lice from fish farms, overfishing, and warming waters—runs from British Columbia’s sinuous Fraser River had been a fraction of what they once were. Before the downpours, Tah-Mahs held onto hope for future catches, thanks to a robust summer return for spawning. Now? There go all our eggs, she thought.

Her family has never not fished. Her father invited her to join his commercial fishing business when she was in her 20s, and the 58-year-old’s house is a veritable shrine to the profession. Salmon depictions are everywhere—over the fireplace, next to the kitchen table, in the planter. Her eldest son, Luke, welded a whole school that hangs above her living room.

Lummi lives are enmeshed, for better or worse, with this capricious fish. For generations the Indigenous people reef netted salmon off the islands of northwest Washington and southern British Columbia. “We are the salmon people,” Tah-Mahs says.

Tah-Mahs (left) and Squil-le-he-le at Xwe’chi’eXen (Cherry Point)

Tah-Mahs (left) and Squil-le-he-le at Xwe’chi’eXen (Cherry Point), a sacred site that Lummi activists saved from becoming a coal plant.

Image: Mike Kane

Since the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 only secured the tribe part of their ancestral land, the Lummi have clung to the sea. Recently a $500 million coal plant was slated to be built on a sacred Lummi shore. To oppose the takeover of the ancient burial and fishing area at Cherry Point, Tah-Mahs joined the tribe’s Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office as a community liaison. The role suited the salty daughter of a commercial fisherman. She couples modern cool-mom energy—joggers, Adele fandom, constant phone-checks—with a firm grasp of her tribe’s traditions and oppression. As a longtime crew member on her father’s very male boat, she’s quick to smile through devastating lines delivered and received.

Her resolve helped engineer an unlikely defeat of the Gateway Pacific Terminal project in 2016. The tribe cited fishing rights in that seminal 1855 treaty. Environmental organizations swooned. Tah-Mahs was labeled a hero.

By the following year, someone had tipped off Lummi Nation’s tribal council about a different cause that would soon become hers. In 1970, while Lummi leaders were fighting for fishing rights, an orca had been lifted from the Salish Sea—their sea. Nearly half a century later, she was still confined to a tank in Miami. No one had consulted with them, both at the time of the capture or during the activist efforts thereafter.

It was a hell of an oversight. Growing up, Tah-Mahs learned about the whales known as qwe ‘lhol mechen, or, loosely, “our relations below the waves,” through stories passed down by elders. Though she was born in England (her mother’s British), her father always drove them up to the reservation from Seattle for weekend visits with his family. Southern resident orcas, dependent on salmon like the Lummi, were spiritual relatives. Tah-Mahs saw them often during fishing trips and considered them part of her extended family. These members, she says, “just wear the regalia that takes them under water.”

In 2017, the tribe’s governing body passed a motion to bring Tokitae home. A council member had called Howard Garrett that June to learn about his campaign, asking how the Lummi Nation could help. For all his knowledge about orcas, Garrett didn’t know about their powerful relationship to the tribe.

That summer, Lummi leaders and local activists joined forces. The two groups shared a passion for orcas and a corner of the world. It shouldn’t have taken decades for them to find one another. But the alliance swiftly reinvigorated, and reframed, the conversation around returning a whale to the Pacific Northwest after nearly 50 years of confinement. It was no longer just a fight to remedy one wrong from the original sin of whale capture; it was a chance to highlight the broader seizure of an Indigenous way of life—the original sin of the region itself.

At the Penn Cove commemoration, an annual remembrance his wife, Susan Berta, started while Garrett was still in Florida, a Lummi contingent read the tribe’s resolution. The next year, a joint press conference in Miami heralded Lummi Nation’s involvement. A Lummi carver and his brother would later lug a cedar totem pole bearing an orca and salmon to Miami and back. Along the way they raised awareness for the captured whale who’d finally been given a proper Lummi name. Tokitae was now known as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.

 

Only one orca has ever been held in captivity for years and released back into the wild. It’s the one you know. Keiko, the star of the 1993 box office hit Free Willy, returned to an Iceland bay in 1998 following an uproar over his treatment at a Mexico City amusement park. For the next few years, he swam in a netted sea pen and on boat-guided ocean “walks” to reacclimate. His health improved, and he could soon hunt for food and initiate contact with other whales. In 2002, after he was liberated, his 1,000-mile journey to Norway drew international media attention and buoyed fans. But Keiko never could fully integrate with a pod. A little over a year later, he beached himself, dying of pneumonia.

Some scientists have cited his story as a cautionary tale for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. In the fall of 2017, shortly after the Orca Network and Lummi Nation joined forces, the Miami Herald quoted a slew of marine mammal experts who weren’t keen on the plan to transport her west. Too risky, they said, at her advanced age—more than twice Keiko’s at the time of his transport. Seaquarium general manager Andrew Hertz didn’t mince words either. “There is no scientific evidence that the 50-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she were to be moved,” he said in a statement shortly after his father Arthur, the Wometco Enterprises CEO, died. The younger Hertz considered it “reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety in order to appease a fringe group.”

Charles Vinick, the man who managed Keiko’s return to the wild, doesn’t see it that way. Sure, the whale didn’t find the requisite social network to survive. But he also regained healthy weight, swam hundreds of miles, and recovered from a papilloma virus that had plagued him in Mexico.

The man he entrusted with Keiko’s care was, paradoxically, a veteran of the whale capture industry. Jeff Foster grew up in Seattle, the son of a veterinarian at the Woodland Park Zoo. The year after the Penn Cove capture, at just 15, Foster started working at Ted Griffin’s Seattle Marine Aquarium. He assisted crews that lit and lobbed seal bombs louder than firecrackers into the water, herding whales into shallow bays.

Today, the 66-year-old with a Steve Irwin mop knows how that sounds. But back then, fishermen were shooting whales. Seizing could be justified as saving. Only at aquariums could scientists begin to grasp the full scope of these creatures’ intellect, it seemed.

When Washington’s capture era ended in 1976, Foster headed to Iceland. The chase was different in the North Atlantic. Twenty-foot swells, seas with no bottom. He took on more and more research projects instead.

In the late 1990s, Foster trained Keiko there. During open-ocean walks, 15 to 20 knots for 60 miles or so at a time, he could see how much better the whale fared in the wild. His view on captures changed “180 degrees.” Overseeing the rehab, Vinick watched Foster swim gloveless for hours with Keiko in bitter-cold water. His fingers went blue as he calmed the whale.

Now Foster's applying that devotion to a repatriation plan for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut—one that blends Lummi tradition with marine science.

A few years ago, Foster and his fellow field biologist wife, Katy, scouted sites in the Pacific Northwest that might work for a natural ocean refuge, an aquatic retirement home for whales and dolphins that performed at marine parks. The project—helmed by his old boss, Vinick—settled on a port in Nova Scotia. No sites in Washington were quite large enough. But for just one whale? Plenty of possibilities.

Early in their partnership with the Langley group, the Lummi had leaned on an outline of Howard Garrett and Ken Balcomb’s proposal to return Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to Northwest waters. But ultimately a couple of tribal members asked the Whale Sanctuary Project, the nonprofit employing Vinick and the Fosters, to put together an operational plan of their own.

The broad strokes of it are similar to Orca Network’s: a thorough health exam in Miami to determine if she can make an aerial trip across the country, a netted enclosure in the Salish Sea, training. The Whale Sanctuary Project seeks a permanent setup that Jeff Foster initially said could be ready quickly, though likely not before summer. The organization is considering a handful of locations in the islands, including at least one that's adjacent to Lummi land. Garrett, meanwhile, envisions his proposal to be a temporary arrangement, available even sooner. With sufficient progress, she could eventually go free.

The whale world is small; both parties know each other well. “It’s a gray shade,” Garrett says, “but Jeff and the Whale Sanctuary Project want to build a sort of alternate universe for captive whales.” Unlike previous versions of the plan, the Whale Sanctuary Project’s document explains the orca’s cultural significance to the tribe. “The difference now,” Vinick says, “is the Lummi.”

 

A drum beats on Biscayne Bay just outside Miami Seaquarium. The marine park’s water flows from this aquamarine lagoon, and Tah-Mahs (Ellie Kinley) and fellow Lummi Nation member Squil-le-he-le (Raynell Morris) want Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to have a taste of home. The two women dip an evergreen wreath in the water. They say a prayer.

It’s 2020, and the Miami Seaquarium is closed. Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut has endured idle periods before—hurricanes even—but Tah-Mahs and Squil-le-he-le have traveled across the country to remind her she hasn’t been forgotten.

Artistic renderings have helped Squil-le-he-le and other tribal members raise awareness about their spiritual relatives.

Image: Mike Kane

Tah-Mahs carries a recent family loss with her on the trip. Her husband died of cancer in 2018. She’d worked on his boat after the death of her father, who’d shaped her life with a job on his seiner all those years ago. The displaced orca she’s come to visit is one lost relative she can actually bring back.

Her companion on this journey feels destined to be there. Squil-le-he-le sought counsel from late Lummi hereditary chief Tsi’li’xw (Bill James) early in the Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut campaign. He’d spoken to the ancestors. This was their path to follow.

Squil-le-he-le had grown up a dreamy little girl playing with dogs and a horse on the reservation, then returned home after developing serious political savvy working in the other Washington. She ascended to associate director at the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs under the Clinton administration. To win support for a Native idea, the 65-year-old woman comfortable in Hillary-esque solids or a pointy cedar hat her mom made learned that “you have to have a blend of the Indigenous and the Western way.”

A year earlier, Squil-le-he-le and Tah-Mahs sent an intent-to-sue letter to the Miami Seaquarium. Its terms were simple: If the marine park’s owner couldn’t work out a deal to return Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to the Salish Sea, they’d invoke the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to recover her. The act usually applies to artifacts or human remains—animals would be a first. Still, Earth Law Center took up their case.

While the duo has some support from Lummi leaders, many of the nearly 5,600-plus people on the reservation still know little about the orca swept away from their waters, or the proposed plan to bring her home. The two community advocates have set up a nonprofit, Sacred Sea, to raise funds for the potential repatriation.

Nobody knows when, or if, the green light will come. Unlike past owners, the Dolphin Company hasn’t shot down the retirement plan. The company didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, but Vinick confirmed that he and others in the campaign have emailed with the leadership team—a major departure from past regimes. “They certainly seem interested in looking at what’s the appropriate next step for her, including bringing her back home. They’re very open about that.”

In the meantime, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut has staged her own revolt. In December, the Miami Herald reported that the USDA is investigating the deaths of multiple animals at the Seaquarium. The orca may have rammed a dolphin in her tank.

Magdalena Rodriguez, a longtime veterinarian at the Miami Seaquarium, wasn’t surprised. She’d seen the “princess poodle” of a whale grow more agitated since Palace Entertainment took over and experienced trainers left. She’d once rejected the idea of Lolita, a sensitive type, traveling across the country to her native waters. These days, the status quo worries her more. “I’m actually concerned with her now at the Seaquarium.”

Tah-Mahs doesn’t hold any delusions. She doubts, at Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s age, she’ll learn to feed herself again. She’s been deprived of Salish Sea salmon for so long. But she doesn’t have to be denied her native waters, or her family. Tah-Mahs spotted the L pod during one recent boat trip off San Juan Island. Among them was Ocean Sun, the whale presumed to be Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s mother, now thought to be in her 90s. They could still reunite. Out there, in the waters where canoes and orcas were once omnipresent, “it’s going home.”

 

It’s not so hard to imagine the alternate universe. Sometime in the near future, an orca swims off an island in northwest Washington. Floats and nets surround her. Cars and passersby watch from shore as divers mill about in wetsuits and retreat into town. Not a capture, but a spectacle nonetheless.

Unlike in Penn Cove that August of 1970, the most fateful sounds in this sanctuary would ring out underwater. While Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut might never graduate from the 15-acre refuge, she could still communicate with her pod, with her mother, just beyond.

She might still remember her family’s calls. A recording from the 1990s documents her singing them at the Seaquarium. The tape begins with a noise that sounds like a record scratching—a squeal before a prolonged pause.

For almost 52 years the memory of her family’s wailing in Penn Cove has filled that silence. A return means a chance for reconnection and more freedom than her current tank can afford. She’d initially swim figure-eights in an hourglass-shaped netted enclosure nearly eight times as big as her cramped quarters in Miami.

Unlike in Florida, here she could gradually learn how to echolocate Chinook salmon again, to heal herself. And all the while, she’d sing the song of her pod, her calls resounding through the calm waters that hold a region’s turbulent history, buried deep but always resurfacing.

Share
Show Comments