The loss of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (Tokitae/Toki) this past week has brought great sadness to all who know, love, and care for this beautiful whale.
Videos and photographs © Copyright 2023 Center for Whale Research.
Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut in her small aquarium tank in Florida.
(Photograph by CWR’s Ken Balcomb)
EVEN FOR THOSE WHO HAD NEVER MET THIS AMAZING BEING, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut had an incredible ability to reach across divides formed by walls and miles to touch and inspire people from around the world. Her gentle nature, her charisma, and her remarkable resilience seemed unwavering despite the deplorable conditions she spent the majority of her life living in.
Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was the last of the endangered Southern Resident orca population in captivity. During a very dark chapter in history, about 40% of the population was captured and shipped to aquariums around the world or died during the process. Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was estimated to be 3-6 years old when caught on August 8, 1970, in Penn Cove. She was one of seven young whales taken during this capture; five others died.
Just over a month later, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut found herself in Miami, Florida, in a tank with another Southern Resident orca—a male named Hugo. The two coexisted until March 1980, when Hugo rammed his head against the tank wall and died. It was the last time Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut would have the company of another orca. Over the years following Hugo’s death, she continued to perform for crowds of people under the hot Florida sun in a small pool not even as deep as she was long. Her trainers and other dolphin species were her only company. For 53 years, this is where she remained.
Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut should never have been forced to spend
endless decades in an excruciatingly small aquarium tank in
Florida. She should have been here in the open ocean . . .
with her family.
The last months of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s life were incredibly hopeful with a chance to escape the inadequate pool where she had spent the vast majority of her life. With the steadfast determination and months and years of work of the Lummi tribe, Howard Garrett, Ken Balcomb, and SO MANY OTHERS, it looked as if Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut might finally have the opportunity to return home to the Salish Sea—to live out the rest of her life in the cold Pacific Northwest waters of her birth, feeling the ebb and flow of the tide, and potentially reconnecting with her orca family. Recordings of Sk’aliChehl-tenaut calling out in distinct Southern Resident orca vocalizations indicate her indelible bonds with her extended family throughout her time in captivity.
On August 18, 2023, Center for Whale Research field staff was off the southern end of San Juan Island on an Aerial Observation Study encounter (i.e., drone encounter). It was a glorious, sunny day; the water was glassy, and there was no breeze. The whales we encountered—the L12s—are believed to be Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s family.
For those who know the whales well and have spent a lot of time with them over the past years, it is more common than not to see the Southern Resident orcas widely spread in their never-ending search for Chinook salmon. However, on this day, we found the whales swimming tightly together and being social with one another. L124 was chasing a fish around. The two new babies, L126 and L127, looked robust and happy, cruising beside their mothers. L85’s tall dorsal fin was very noticeable among the females and juveniles. And right in the middle of everyone was the oldest member of the Southern Resident community, L25. She is the only living whale from the 1960s and 1970s capture era.
On August 18, 2023, Center for Whale Research field staff encountered the L12s—believed to be Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s family— during a CWR Aerial Observation Study encounter at the southern end
of San Juan Island, Washington.
On our August 18 orca encounter, while watching the L12s, we received the tragic news that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut had died earlier in the afternoon. It was not lost on us that we were in the company of the L12s and L25 as they socialized and played. For the balance of the day, the mood aboard the research boat was somber and sad. Our thoughts mirrored one another: Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut should never have been forced to spend endless decades in an excruciatingly small aquarium tank in Florida. She should have been here in the open ocean . . . with her family.
Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s family, the Southern Resident orcas, has been on the endangered species list since 2005. A laundry list of threats faces this population: most importantly, lack of prey, primarily Chinook salmon, plus noise disturbance and pollution. The Southern Residents also deal with an unnatural age gap within the population, for which the capture era is to blame. Female whales that would have been the current generation’s matriarchs, born in the 60s and early 70s, are gone—many were victims of a life of imprisonment that claimed them at much too young of an age. By 1987, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was the last known survivor of the Southern Resident population still in captivity.
So, where do we go from here? How do we honor this incredible soul, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut?
We must remember her family.
Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut family is still here and forge-on unyielding despite the overwhelming issues they face. Her family is gravely endangered and desperately needs our help—they need all the friends they can possibly get.
Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut will never be forgotten. Her legacy will live on with all Southern Residents still plying the waters of the Salish Sea. And while Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut did not swim in her native waters again, we can work to ensure that her family is present here for generations to come. To honor and protect them is to honor her memory.
And while Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut did not swim in her native waters
again, we can work to ensure that her family is present here for generations to come. To honor and protect them is to honor her memory.
The Southern Resident orca community’s oldest member, L25, in the Strait of Georgia on June 30, 2023, during ORCA SURVEY Encounter #31.
L25 was possibly Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s mother.
Katie Jones is the Center for Whale Research’s Scientific Interpreter.
The Center for Whale Research is a 501c3 non-profit organization registered in Washington State. CWR is a 501(c)3 - ID #91-1334319