Remembering Tokitae: What Killer Whales Can Teach

Penn Cove is a tranquil scoop of ocean situated on the eastern flank of Washington’s Whidbey Island. Douglas fir and Sitka spruce ring the cove giving its shores the signature, emerald hue of the Pacific Northwest. The town of Coupeville presides over the southern edge of the three-mile bight. The restaurants and shops on one side of the main street are propped on pilings that rise vertically from the water. Midway down the block, the Kingfisher Bookstore lets patrons browse the works of local writers in front of a large picture window that opens over the water. If you became too engrossed in your reading and toppled the wrong way, you’d end up in the drink.

I knew the cove’s storied name because of its famous shellfish farm. But last month, I learned a less savory part of the cove’s history. Standing on a wharf that juts seventy-five yards into the bay, I read a string of interpretive signs about a torrid event. In August of 1970, a collection of fishermen and local businessmen used the natural trap provided by Penn Cove to round up eighty of Puget Sound’s southern resident orca population. As the nets closed in on the panicked orcas, at least six became entangled and drowned. Some were found on the ocean floor with slits in their sides and rocks in their bellies, apparently to hide the evidence of their deaths. Seven were sold to marine parks across the country. The rest barely escaped with their lives.

Puget Sound’s three southern resident orca pods have not fared well since then. The live capture of orcas has been prohibited for decades but the ban hasn’t helped much. There are thought to be only seventy-three individuals left. Protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 2005 the population remains critically endangered. Poor ocean conditions as well as the collapse of salmon fisheries have contributed to the decline. The fragile population of resident orcas in Southern Puget Sound not only provides a sobering lesson about vulnerability in a world humans dominate. They also offer a harrowing lesson in morality.

Chris Morgan is a filmmaker, podcaster, and ecologist based 50 miles north of Penn Cove as the salmon swims. His recent podcast “Eavesdropping on Orcas: Love, Grief and Family” draws a chilling parallel between the experience of the orcas and that of tribal peoples brutalized by settlers in the Sound. Jay Julius of the Lummi tribe told Morgan, “In all honesty and all reality, it’s a story of grief…. Their stories are exactly the same…. Their traumas are exactly the same.”  Julius is worried about what is happening to salmon and whales. “When they disappear,” he says. “I disappear.” Morgan’s podcast examines whether the orcas are experiencing the same intergenerational trauma as the tribe. 

Fifty years after the roundup, Puget Sound’s orcas still avoid Penn Cove. Julius says they know what was done to them there. Orcas can live close to a hundred years. The older matriarchs guide the pods and retain memories of where people have been cruel to them. It’s not clear if orcas forgive, but they certainly don’t forget.

Two weeks after returning from my trip to Coupeville I saw a headline about a marine park in Miami that had signed an agreement to return a captured orca to its home waters. Tokitae was removed from Puget Sound during the Penn Cove atrocity in the nineteen-seventies. She has been in a small tank in Miami ever since. The whale thought to be Tokitae’s mother is still swimming free in Puget Sound. Trapped in her cramped pen, Tokitae sings the songs her mother and grandmother taught her in the Pacific.

It will be a mighty logistical challenge to return Tokitae safely to Puget Sound. Being flown across the country in an airplane will be stressful for the fifty-six-year-old orca. Even after she is gently lowered back into Puget Sound, she may never regain the skills to feed herself, having been fed by human handlers for half a century. Tokitae will likely have to remain in a large enclosure where her caregivers can ensure she has enough food.

But those who have lobbied for her return think it important for Tokitae to feel the caress of the waters of her birth on her skin. There she will listen to the songs still sung by her native pod. One imagines her mother may come to the edge of her enclosure and nuzzle through the mesh with the child that was stolen from her.

I’d like to say Tokitae’s return makes amends for what happened in Penn Cove half a century ago.  But it doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does provide is a reminder that relations with the living world can change. Orcas are just one of the intelligent, sophisticated beings that humans have traumatized over the centuries. Perhaps we recognize our failings with orcas now. The ongoing task is to become more aware of our other failings. Then change we must.

Andre Esteves via

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