Whidbey group proposes a whale of a name for ferry

Orcas struggle for their freedom during the famous 1970 round up in Penn Cove. Whidbey’s Orca Network is suggesting one of two new 144-car ferries being built by the state be named after the event’s last remaining survivor, Lolita.  - Photo by Wallie Funk
Orcas struggle for their freedom during the famous 1970 round up in Penn Cove. Whidbey’s Orca Network is suggesting one of two new 144-car ferries being built by the state be named after the event’s last remaining survivor, Lolita.
— image credit: Photo by Wallie Funk

Efforts to release Penn Cove’s most famous orca from captivity has resorted to name calling.

Orca Network, a nonprofit whale advocacy group based in Greenbank, has submitted “Tokitae” to the Washington State Transportation Commission for consideration as a name for one of two new 144-car ferries under construction.

Tokitae is the Coast Salish greeting for “nice day, pretty colors,” and is the original name of Lolita, a Puget Sound orca that has spent more than 40 years living and performing at Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

Howard Garrett, president of Orca Network, said the name choice is fitting as it honors both an old Native American greeting and orcas, which are an endangered species and the state’s official marine mammal.

“It goes back thousands of years and four decades,” he said. “It honors both long-term and short-term history.

Of course, it’s also meant to cast light on the famous whale herself. She is the last survivor of approximately 45 Southern Resident orcas captured in Washington during the 1960s and 1970s and Orca Network is one of several advocacy groups that believes she should be released into the wild.

“One of our citizens is being held captive as a circus performer in Miami,” Garrett said. “We’d like to return her.”

Former state Gov. Mike Lowry declared the whale a Washington citizen in 1995 as the start of a campaign to bring the animal back to Puget Sound. Although it has yet to succeed, it’s a fight that continues to this day.

According to Garrett, in August the Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, commonly known as PETA, jointly filed a lawsuit against U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It alleges that a division of the agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has failed to address issues with the orca’s holding tank, namely issues concerning size and shade.

It is the latest in a string of lawsuits and actions waged on the animal’s behalf over the years. This is also the second attempt to name a new state ferry after the controversial orca.

Deb Lund, a Whidbey Island author of children’s books, submitted the name in 2010 for the second of three new Kwa-di Tabil class ferries being built. It lost out to “Salish” and “Kennewick” but it did strike favor with influential elected leaders in Olympia.

“I thought that was a great name,” said District 10 Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, who is also chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

“I am still in support of it,” she said.

Haugen is not alone. Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard have also endorsed the name choice, adding their names to an online petition.

As of Monday, it included a total of 857 signatures from people across 40 states and 35 countries. To add your name you name to the petition, visit and search for Tokitae.

Although the naming suggestion has obvious support, it could be an uphill battle. The transportation commission has a policy of not naming ferries after individuals, though it does consider them on a case-by-case basis.

Whether the transportation commission will view Tokitae as an individual or not is anyone’s guess, but the issue is obviously debatable. For example, while former Gov. Lowry was happy to proclaim the whale a citizen more than a decade ago, others today still see her as just an animal.

“I don’t think an orca is an individual,” Haugen said.

Whatever the case, the transportation commission has set a deadline of Sept. 26. A review and public comment period will follow and a decision will be made at the group’s Nov. 13 meeting in Tacoma.


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