'She was stolen:' Lummi Nation heads to Florida in effort to bring 'Lolita' back home

Lolita the killer whale was taken from the waters of Penn Cove in 1970 and for the last 47 years, she's been living in a tank at the Miami Seaquarium. (Photo: KOMO News file)

ORCAS ISLAND, Wash. - An hour’s boat ride from the Lummi Nation is a beautiful cove on Orcas Island that many hope with become the future home of Lolita, the orca.

Jim Youngren bought 160 acres surrounding the cove 40 years ago. Now he has struck a multi-million dollar deal to sell his property to the Lummi Nation to become a permanent home for the orca that’s been performing at Miami’s Seaquarium.

Not involved in the deal is the Seaquarium, who has refused to even speak to the Lummi’s about taking ownership of the whale and moving her to the cove.

“This is her place of belonging, right here, this water,” said Jay Julius, Chairman of the Lummi Nation.

After decades of efforts and talks about bringing Lolita Tokitae home, the name the Lummi’s have given the 52-year-old whale, there’s never been an effort with this type of money behind it.

She was captured nearly 50 years ago when the roundup of orcas for theme parks and aquariums didn’t have the resistance as it would have today.

She currently performs two shows a day at the Seaquarium where she’s been for 47 years. For decades, management has said they will never give her up.

“She was stolen, Miami Seaquarium was responsible directly or indirectly for the death of her family, she didn't deserve that,” said Lummi Nation Councilmember Nickolaus Lewis.

Youngren and the Lummi’s have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to buy the 160 acres for $5.5 million, regardless if Lolita moves or not. A portion of the land was once a tribal village.

The 60-feet-deep cove would be penned off to prevent Tokitae from leaving the cove, but she could still communicate with other orcas, possibly other family members say the Lummi’s and biologists.

But wait there’s more – room service.

One year after Jim bought the land, he established a fish hatchery for Chinook salmon.

“My interest is salmon, what can we do to increase the population of chinook salmon so these orcas are not endangered for lack of fish,” said Youngren.

Chinook are the primary prey for orcas and biologists say a healthy salmon population can lead to a healthy orca population.

“So the irony is we have an endangered species that's reliant on a threatened species for survival, so we are at a critical point,” said Youngren.

He now releases 750,000 juvenile Chinook in late spring and sees hundreds to thousands of 20 to 30 pound salmon return in late summer. In order to reach his hatchery, the adult salmon would have to pass right through the cove where Tokitae would live.

“It’s all just happening like it was supposed to happen,” said Youngren.

“You never go into a fight thinking you are going to lose,” said Julius. “I still don't consider this a fight, I think of this as an effort."

On Thursday, the Lummi’s will begin a totem journey with a carving depicting a mother orca and a tribal mother calling out to the spirit above and below the water surface.

They will spend two weeks traveling to Miami with 16 stops along the way to bring awareness to their effort.

The totem wills also be included in a tribal ceremony in Miami. It’s unknown if tribal members plan to meet with Seaquarium management, once they arrive in Miami.

“I’m an internal optimist, so there's no reason for this not to happen, let's make it happen, let's help it happen,” said Youngren.

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