Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
The recent death of the orca Lolita – also known as Tokitae, or Toki – at the age of 57 is a devastating end for a whale who lived almost her entire life in captivity as a tourist attraction. After a long campaign to return Toki to the sea by various organisations and members of the indigenous Lummi Nation who considered Toki to be family, Miami Seaquarium, where Tokitae was held, finally agreed to a plan to release her into a sea pen in late 2024. But due to a suspected kidney condition, possibly related to chronic infections caused by poor water quality in her tank and feeding her rotting fish, Toki died before she could be returned home.
Toki was stolen from her family, the L-pod of southern resident orcas in the Salish Sea, when she was four-years-old, in 1970 along with several other orcas who were also sold on to marine parks and aquariums. She originally shared her tank with another orca called Hugo, but he died at the age of 14 in 1980 of a brain aneurysm, leaving Toki to live the next 43 years in solitude. In 2021, a report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed serious problems with Toki’s living conditions and care under Miami Seaquarium's previous owner, Palace Entertainment. Her small tank was crumbling and staff were failing to properly monitor and maintain appropriate chlorine levels in the water. In these dire conditions, Toki was made to perform for audiences twice a day until she was retired in 2022 after a new licence agreement between the USDA and Miami Seaquarium’s new owner, The Dolphin Company.
Toki’s death comes only months after Kiska, dubbed “the world’s loneliest orca” died at 47 in a theme park in Canada. Campaigners were also trying to get Kiska released from captivity, but she succumbed to a reported bacterial infection before she could be freed.
The plight of captive orcas gained huge public attention following the 2013 release of the documentary Blackfish, which told the story of Tilikum, an orca imprisoned and forced to perform at the US marine park SeaWorld. While held at SeaLand Canada, Tilikum was bullied by two female orcas he was kept with, and the three ended up killing a trainer. Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando where he was supposed to retire from performing, but the marine park put him in shows anyway. Blackfish showed how, despite SeaWorld’s claims that the orcas enjoyed performing, the stress of his life in captivity caused his aggression, which resulted in him killing two more people.
In the wake of the film’s release, SeaWorld’s attendance dropped dramatically, and eventually in 2016 it announced the end of its orca breeding programme. California banned captive orca breeding in the same year. France, which has three dolphinariums, banned cetacean breeding in 2017, meaning it will eventually have no orcas or bottlenose dolphins (the two species it currently keeps) left to display. Cyprus, Canada, Croatia, and India have banned cetacean captivity, while the UK’s last captive display park for cetaceans shut down in 1993 and has such strict regulations around their care that the standards are practically impossible to meet.
But an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 cetaceans remain in captivity across the world. SeaWorld remains the world’s biggest owner of captive orcas. While some of the world’s captive cetaceans have been bred in captivity, some are still captured from the wild. The infamous Taiji dolphin hunt in Japan not only sees many dolphins slaughtered, but others taken from the sea and sold to marine parks. Russia is also a big source of wild-captured cetaceans. After releasing 97 beluga whales and orcas that had been held in a “whale jail” while conservationists challenged their export to Chinese aquariums, Russia decided not to go ahead with a proposed ban capturing cetaceans for display.
Cetaceans are highly intelligent and social animals and suffer severely in captivity. There is evidence of whale culture, music and language, as well as the enduring social and familial bonds they form with each other.
Those who have lived most of their lives in captivity might not be able to return to the total freedom they deserve, as some may need ongoing human care, while others need time to re-learn survival skills for life in the open ocean. But releases into sanctuaries like the one planned for Toki are possible. A first-of-its-kind sanctuary was created in Icelandic waters where two beluga whales, Little White and Little Grey, were transported in 2020 a decade after their capture from the sea by a Russian whale research centre that later sent them to a water park in China.
Cetaceans aren’t the only marine animals to suffer decades-long sentences in captivity. At the Sea Life aquarium in Brighton, a sea turtle named Lulu has lived in small tanks for more than 80 years. If she had lived freely, Lulu would have swum thousands of miles across the oceans, as sea turtles perform one of the longest migrations of free-living animals.
For the animals.