State official doesn't believe Tokitae will be back home in Puget Sound this year

The push to return an iconic, captive orca to the Pacific Northwest is gaining momentum – but roadblocks loom.

Tokitae, captured near Penn Cove in the 1970s, has been the focus of local groups attempting to bring her back to the Salish Sea for decades.

For decades, the Miami Seaquarium scoffed at activists who demanded Tokitae be returned to her home waters.

Things changed in 2022 when the Miami Seaquarium was sold to The Dolphin Company. Earlier this year, a one-of-a-kind partnership was announced between The Dolphin Company and a non-profit called ‘Friends of Toki’ to move her to a sanctuary in her native waters.

Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has committed to bankrolling an operation that will include Tokitae’s ongoing care and her eventual transport to the Pacific Northwest. This month, he has teased a date of Tokitae’s return as early as Thanksgiving or Christmas.

"That kind of pressure is good pressure," said Charles Vinick, the executive director of Friends of Toki. "It keeps us on our toes, and it also keeps everyone focused on what we need to get done. That’s important."

Vinick told FOX 13 that they’re making progress on multiple fronts simultaneously.

In Miami, vets have already begun to introduce Tokitae to a sling that would eventually be used to move her. They have also brought in artificial kelp, in hopes of building up toward real kelp so that she understands the type of plants she’ll encounter in her future home.

"We have experts in every part of this," said Vinick. "Whether it’s government relations, veterinary care, animal husbandry – the people who care for Toki, as well as, transport, fabrication of her enclosure, experts in every field are coming together to allow us to do this the best way we can, and as rapidly as we can."

RELATED: Activist facing lawsuit over social media videos showcasing Tokitae

The state, however, isn’t certain that the timelines that have been floated and celebrated online are realistic.

Dan McConnon, the director of the Governor’s Office for Regulatory Innovation and Assistance, told FOX 13 that a timeline in 2023 seemed out of the question.

ORIA is not the office that will permit the project, but essentially operates as a hub for local, state and federal government entities to ensure that data is being shared between entities to streamline the process.

McConnon said that the biggest issues that will be the focus of scientific reviews will be the possibility of pathogens that could be transferred from Tokitae to other marine life, and any acoustic noises that could harm the endangered Southern Resident killer whales – her family – once she arrives.

"2023 would be a miracle," said McConnon, instead stating that late-2024 was a more realistic date. "We’re shooting for the end of ’24, or early ’25 – but that would take all the agencies, everything going in the right direction."

It’s worth noting that Friends of Toki has never published its own timeline, or expectations. Instead, they have focused on working as quickly and responsibly as possible.

During this year’s Super Pod event on San Juan Island, an event that brings a who’s who of orca experts from around the globe together, Vinick noted that they have brought on a number of groups that will be able to help with the permitting process.
Conversations appear to have begun with tribal nations to seek support for a relocation strategy, while both state and federal governments have been in talks with Friends of Toki.

Howard Garrett, Orca Network, is among the people who’ve been working on the push to bring Tokitae home for several decades.

He told FOX 13 that he’s elated as more news has emerged in recent months.

"I could not have imagined the sequence of events that began less than two years ago, that has come to this point now," said Garrett.

"She’s coming home. The elements are in place, and hear health is good. That’s the key element."

While some details have not been released, the picture of Tokitae’s future home is coming together.

Irsay joined a podcast with Pat McAfee, a popular sports analyst, earlier this month and outlined the plans to move and house Tokitae. He described a 15-acre fenced-in sea pen, with natural water that would allow her to be in regular interaction with veterinarians that will be traveling with her – and moving to the location she’s heading to live.

"Barring some unforeseen circumstance, I think it’s happening," said Garrett. "It’s inevitable."

Garrett pointed to the current situation the Miami Seaquarium is facing in regards to Tokitae. The stadium surrounding her tank has been condemned, meaning that it will eventually be demolished. Before that can happen, Tokitae needs to move.

There have been some concerns raised by a Congressional delegation that a short-term solution needs to be prepared as hurricane season arrives, but according to those involved with Friends of Toki, plans have been devised about who would stay with Tokitae in the event of a hurricane, and how the area would be prepped before a potential storm made landfall.

Vinick said, the key is that Tokitae’s health has improved in recent months – the health scares that garnered national attention in 2022, appear to be behind her.

"She looks robust and fit," he said. "The vets have said, ‘She is ready to be transported when all the other features, all the other things have been met.’"