Famous Killer Whale Dies at Florida Park, Updates Given

in Theme Parks

Tokitae pokes her head out of the water

Credit: Miami Seaquarium

A famous orca has sadly passed away at a marine park in Florida.

The history of killer whales in captivity is long and tragic. Since 1961, marine parks across the globe have taken killer whales – also known as orcas – from their native waters and trained them for the sake of entertainment.

A few orcas perform tricks and stunts during a show at SeaWorld as Guests look on from the stands.
Credit: SeaWorld

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Dozens of orcas remain in captivity today, most famously at SeaWorld. Each of its three parks in the United States – San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando – contains orcas, with former residents including Tilikum, the subject of Blackfish (2013).

It was this documentary that first started to turn the tide of public opinion on captive orcas. The film explored Tilikum’s time in captivity, as well as his role in three of the four recorded fatal attacks on humans committed by orcas.

Most famously, Tilikum caused the death of 40-year-old SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 when the orca whale dragged her into the water following a Dine with Shamu show. He was previously also involved in the death of Keltie Lee Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia, alongside his tank mates Haida II and Nootka IV, and the death of Daniel P. Dukes at SeaWorld Orlando.

Tilikum performing
Credit: Milan Boers via Flickr

The documentary put Tilikum’s aggression down to his years spent living in a tank. Since then, several marine parks have vowed not to take on more orcas. Tilikum passed away in 2017 – the same year the killer whale breeding program ended at SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego, and SeaWorld San Antonio – making the current collection of orcas the final generation to live at SeaWorld parks.

Earlier this year, however, one park took the drastic move to announce that it was freeing its captive orca. Lolita, also known as Tokitae, arrived at Miami Seaquarium in 1970. While she previously had company in the form of fellow orca Hugo, she became the park’s only killer whale after Hugo died following an accidental injury on the wall of their tank.

Tokitae performing as Lolita at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo DaSilva via Flickr

She went on to spend a total of 53 years at the park, making her the second-oldest killer whale in captivity after Corky II at SeaWorld San Diego. In 2021, she ceased performing after the condition of the tank was criticized by the United States Department of Agriculture.

It was later announced that she would never return to performing, and in March 2023, Miami Seaquarium shared plans for Lolita to spend the remainder of her life in a semi-wild sea pen in the Salish Sea in 2024.

While some animal activists praised the announcement, others denounced it as cruel , insisting that Tokitae was not equipped for life in the ocean and would likely not survive the trip. They instead suggested that she be relocated to a bigger tank at a SeaWorld park. Critics also cited the case of Keiko, the killer whale famous for playing Willy in Free Willy (1993), as a warning. Keiko failed to reassimilate to the wild after being freed in 2002, instead seeking out human contact and ultimately dying from pneumonia.

Lolita pokes her head out of the water
Credit: Truth4Toki

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Sadly, we will never know whether Tokitae would have acclimatized to life back in the ocean. Miami Seaquarium announced yesterday (August 18) that she passed away after developing a renal condition.

Over the last two days, Toki started exhibiting serious signs of discomfort, which her full Miami Seaquarium and Friends of Toki medical team began treating immediately and aggressively. Despite receiving the best possible medical care, she passed away Friday afternoon from what is believed to be a renal condition.

Toki was an inspiration to all who had the fortune to hear her story and especially to the Lummi nation that considered her family. Those who have had the privilege to spend time with her will forever remember her beautiful spirit.

Tokitae had previously suffered from pneumonia last fall before seeming to recover. Tom Reidarson, a former SeaWorld veterinarian who worked with Tokitae in Miami after being hired by the activist group Friends of Toki, recently said that he was concerned about her health.

“It became pretty dire,” he told the Miami Herald. However, Tokitae received antibiotics, and her lung problems healed well, with Reidarson adding, “She’s actually really healthy right now.”

Miami Seaquarium revealed that it would close its park today (August 19) in order to “reflect on Lolita’s life and legacy.”

Are you for or against theme parks releasing killer whales back into the wild? Let us know in the comments!

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