Washington state

How a generation of killer whales was taken from Puget Sound

Should Lolita be freed? What’s next for her and other large marine mammals in captivity.

After a lifetime in captivity, the window for freeing Lolita, the Miami Seaquarium's star orca, may be closed, activists say. As the campaign to free her continues to rage, they question whether freeing Lolita is in her best interest.
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After a lifetime in captivity, the window for freeing Lolita, the Miami Seaquarium's star orca, may be closed, activists say. As the campaign to free her continues to rage, they question whether freeing Lolita is in her best interest.

He saw the orca looming, so close, in the sea pen hastily welded together for the more-than 400-mile tow to Seattle.

“I dive down and oh God, there is this shadow four feet away, looking at me,” said Ted Griffin, remembering his first moments with Namu, soon to become the world’s first performing captive killer whale.

Then he heard it: A loud SQUEAK.

“I think it is the whale, so I go ‘EEEE’ and within half a second, the whale squeaks,” Griffin said, eyes still wide with the memory. “My God, I am crying, I can barely keep my mask on. It is indescribable. What has happened is that all those years I am wanting an animal to say hello, and one has. I am thunderstruck.”

Word of Namu – named for the remote B.C. village where he was accidentally caught in a fishermen’s net – quickly spread. Thousands of onlookers backed up for miles on and near Deception Pass Bridge hoping to catch a glimpse when Namu’s Navy, as the orca’s entourage of onlookers, press and promoters was called, passed beneath.

Arriving in Seattle on July 28, 1965, Griffin was given a hero’s welcome and a key to the city.

In the weeks to come, thousands flocked and paid to see the whale at Griffin’s Seattle Marine Aquarium at Pier 56. Namu fever stoked an international craze for killer whales to put on exhibit all over the nation and the world. Captors particularly targeted the young, the cheapest to ship.

For more than a decade, Puget Sound was the primary source of supply.

AP_17007805498336
An orca or killer whale breaches in view of Mount Baker, some 60 miles distant, in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands in 2015. For more than a decade, Puget Sound was the primary source of supply of orcas for aquariums. By 1976 some 270 orcas were captured – many multiple times – in the Salish Sea. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50, mostly Puget Sound’s critically endangered southern residents, were kept for captive display. All are dead by now but one. Elaine Thompson AP file

By 1976 some 270 orcas were captured – many multiple times – in the Salish Sea, the transboundary waters between the U.S. and Canada, according to historian Jason Colby at the University of Victoria. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50, mostly Puget Sound’s critically endangered southern residents, were kept for captive display. All are dead by now but one.

Despite it all, the southern residents battled their way back to a population of 98 by 2005, only to be hammered once again by an assault of overfishing, development, pollution, habitat degradation and now climate change that threatens us all.

Mark Overland, of Gig Harbor, remembers well watching the orca captures that unfolded before his eyes, and going to court to stop them. Now the region’s burgeoning growth and development ever since threaten the orcas in ways just as real as a harpoon.

“We saved them, but for what?” Overland said.

It was actually the capture era that for the first time enabled humans to understand the complex intelligence of an animal that went in a generation from reviled to revered, and finally, protected. A look back at that period is a reminder of how the region’s special relationship with the orca evolved.

Namu and Griffin started it all: the orca and orca catcher who would change the world.

Shot and reviled

For thousands of years, the native people of the Northwest have held orcas in high esteem, as their chiefs reincarnate and respected family members that live under the sea. But to non-Indian newcomers to the region, particularly salmon fishermen who saw the whales as competition, orcas were widely regarded as a vermin species and vicious killer to be at best avoided, and whenever possible, exterminated.

Ben Helle, archivist at the Washington State Archives in Olympia, needs only one search word in an online database of old newspapers to easily find examples of dread and mutilation: “blackfish.” Such as the front-page story in The Olympian Daily Recorder on Nov. 8, 1910, cheering the bravery of two teenage boys for cornering a young orca trapped in shallow water, shooting its eyes out and cutting it apart with a knife. It took the young whale three hours to die from uncounted plugs from the boys’ .22 rifle and knife slashes to its throat.

The U.S. Navy used the whales for target practice in Icelandic waters, as historian Colby recounts in his book, “Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator.” The Canadians mounted a .50 caliber machine gun overlooking Seymour Narrows in 1961 with which to mow down the whales. Ultimately never fired, it nonetheless symbolized the war on marine mammals underway for decades around the world.

In the Northwest, the carnage was wholly embraced by state and federal agencies. Until the early 1960s, the state of Washington paid a bounty on every harbor-seal nose mailed to Olympia, and federal researchers routinely harpooned killer whales to cut them open to learn what they were eating.

So when Griffin turned up with Namu, it was a shock that he took the whale alive, and wanted to. He was just getting started.

To catch an orca

Awkward and struggling in school, Griffin from his earliest days found refuge and delight in animals. His pets included everything from a seagull to a lungfish.

Griffin built an 8,000-gallon fish tank behind his family’s Bellevue home. He was scuba diving with rudimentary equipment before he was driving. One of his earliest business ventures was a pet shop on Aurora Avenue.

Griffin in 1962 opened his aquarium – no relation to the Seattle Aquarium of today – on the downtown waterfront, hoping to capitalize on the upcoming World’s Fair. A formidable collector of marine life for his attractions, he became obsessed with a personal quest for the ultimate live specimen: a killer whale.

When Griffin got a telephone call from fishermen in Canada that they had two whales caught in an abandoned net, Griffin quickly raised $8,000 to buy one (the other had escaped). Nearly broke at the time, he raised the money mostly from waterfront businesses wanting to cash in if Namu was a hit.

Griffin, now 83, still quickens with excitement retelling his race by seaplane to B.C. to get the whale, a backpack full of cash slung over his shoulder. His quest for the killer whale was always about more than collecting a moneymaking attraction, Griffin said. He wanted to know the ocean’s feared and even reviled predator for himself.

“The world is confused about the whale,” Griffin said, recalling the time when orcas, so beloved today, were detested. “To me, he is just another pet, somebody to make friends with.

“In my mind, I had already accepted the whale as a companion. And a friend.”

As Namu’s cage was towed to his aquarium, Griffin said he only cared about one thing. “They are making music, celebrating, the fire boats are all shooting in the air. But for me, all I saw was the whale.”

Before long, Griffin was inside the net with the ocean’s top predator, touching Namu on his face, then his blowhole. He discovered the whale liked his skin scratched with a brush – belly, back, everywhere.

They squeaked back and forth, the whale adjusting his tone to match Griffin’s. Within a month, Griffin made history, becoming the first human ever known to ride a killer whale. Namu, Griffin said, quickly figured out how long Griffin could hold his breath underwater and timed his dives accordingly.

Visitors and the press were crazy for the story of Griffin and Namu. National Geographic published a photo of Griffin opening the whale’s jaws that Griffin keeps in a frame on the hearth of his home today.

Hollywood came calling and made the feature film “Namu the Killer Whale” (“Make Room in Your Heart for a 6-ton Pet” was the subtitle), filmed at Rich Cove near Bremerton. In the netted-off cove, the two spent day after day together.

“He doesn’t want me to go back to shore and go home, as long as I am in the water grooming him or riding him,” Griffin remembered. Sometimes, Namu would even hold him close in his pectoral fins.

“Namu holds me hostage for his pleasure, as I have held him captive for mine,” Griffin wrote in his autobiography, “Namu, Quest for the Killer Whale.”

It was all over in less than a year.

Namu died a terrible death the summer after he was captured from a massive bacterial infection caused by the raw sewage polluting Elliott Bay.

Griffin, blaming himself, was inconsolable. But by then the world was killer-whale crazy, with orders for live orcas streaming in to Griffin’s business, Namu, Inc., from aquariums around the world. But for Griffin, with Namu gone, whale catching became just what he would call The Business.

A dark chapter in Penn Cove

It was August 1970, and Griffin had far more whales behind nets than he had ever dealt with, or intended to catch. It was a superpod: a gathering of 90 to 100 orcas – possibly the entire southern-resident population – surging and leaping behind nets at Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove.

Alarmed, Griffin knew he had more on his hands than he could safely handle, for either his divers or the whales. He ordered most of them freed, angering his late partner Don Goldsberry and the fishermen who made the initial set of the net, Griffin said.

With some 40 whales still captive, Griffin set about the work of sorting the ones to keep and ones to set loose. Cries from the orca families as they were separated still haunt the memories of locals, and even those participating in the capture.

Up until then, the captures were covered in The Seattle Times and other media like sporting events whenever Griffin took to the skies in a helicopter, scouting for whales. But this capture during the height of tourist season on Whidbey Island was different. Up close and personal, the capture was harrowing to those who had never seen or heard such a thing before.

With no regulations whatsoever to restrain him, Griffin could have taken and sold every last whale. But most “croppers,” as whale catchers called themselves, still sought – within the limited and often incorrect understanding at that time of orca biology – to manage the live capture business like any other fishery.

Opponents seeking to foil the hunt cut one of the Penn Cove nets in the night – resulting in even more tragedy. Griffin, sleeping on the deck of his boat to keep a watch on the whales, heard a change in the orcas’ breathing and saw that some of the lights on the cork line of the net had dipped below the water.

He awakened his divers and sent them to search the nets. They found four baby orcas tangled in the drifting net and drowned. Goldsberry suggested they tie anchors to the orcas’ tails to sink the babies out of sight.

They slit the bellies to allow gases to escape so the carcasses would not float, tied anchors to the orcas and sank them. Yet another orca, an adult female, would be killed in the hunt before it was all over, bringing the death toll to five.

The captors did not count on one of the anchored corpses washing ashore, then eventually three more, dragged from the bottom by a fisherman. The public regard in which Griffin and his capture team were held took a dark turn.

The end of an era

It wasn’t long before the state of Washington, in the public outcry following the Penn Cove capture, in 1971 set itself up in the whale-hunting business, setting limits on size, and charging permit fees of $1,000 per whale.

Griffin – by then his life, his marriage and his finances in ruins – had quit the whale-catching business for good in 1972, selling it to Goldsberry, who then resold the company to SeaWorld. Griffin informally changed his name and moved to Eastern Washington, where he sought obscurity, working as a day laborer for as little as $2 an hour.

The federal government that year enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act, ending whale captures in the U.S. But SeaWorld was allowed to continue its hunts when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1974 granted the amusement park an economic-hardship exemption.

The whales were getting harder to catch, grown wise to the sound of Goldsberry’s boat and tactics, including being chased by helicopter and speedboat and herded with firecrackers. Some of the orcas, by then caught multiple times, had learned to roll their bodies, laying down their dorsal fins on the water, making them harder to spot. The pods would also split up, parents sending the young in another direction and deploying themselves as decoys.

After getting skunked by the whales for years, Goldsberry’s 1976 hunt for SeaWorld in Budd Inlet near the state Capitol would prove historic.

Ralph Munro, then a staff aide to Gov. Dan Evans, was on a weekend sailing outing when he encountered whales fleeing across the water. Munro quickly realized the orcas were being chased. He saw Goldsberry and his crew lighting seal bombs – underwater firecrackers – one after another, throwing them at the whales, and pursuing the terrified orcas in speedboats.

“It was gruesome,” Munro said, grimacing at the memory 42 years later. “As they closed the net there was a guy on the back of the boat with a torch, and he was lighting and dropping these explosives as fast as he could light them, boom, boom, boom, the orcas were screaming … I can still hear them, screaming back and forth.

“They had parts of the pod inside the net, and parts of the pod outside the net. It was just panic, totally disgusting. Sickening.”

Munro was desperate to intervene. He reached out to the press, and the hunt the next day was front-page news around the region.

Munro then enlisted the help of state Attorney General Slade Gorton, who mustered a legal attack on SeaWorld. Evans in a news conference announced his opposition to the hunt, and the state within hours got a federal restraining order, prohibiting SeaWorld from moving the whales, which were by then circling in nets surrounded by more than 100 opponents in kayaks, canoes and on the beach.

Munro personally served the restraining order on Goldsberry, approaching his boat in the middle of a dark, rainy night in the company of the biggest game warden he could find. SeaWorld went to work the next morning to quash the injunction.

Legal wrangling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and back landed the controversy once more in federal court in Seattle, where demonstrators lined up on the courthouse steps and down the street demanded a stop to the hunts. Eventually, three of the six captured whales escaped, a fourth was too large and had to be released, and two more ultimately were ordered released back to the wild.

SeaWorld, in its settlement agreement, vowed never again to hunt killer whales in Washington waters. The orca hunt in Budd Inlet was the last in America.

The hunter and the hunted

Today, only one Puget Sound whale still survives from the capture era: Tokitae, or Lolita, held 48 years at the Miami Seaquarium. A few years ago, Griffin went to go visit.

Seeing her, he said, he had no regrets. Not about her. Not about any of it.

He said his motives were never understood.

“I wanted people to see the whale the way I see the whale,” Griffin said. “They are shooting at seals, anything that pops up in the water. I am saying, ‘What are you doing? There is something behind that.’

“Because I want to humanize that person in the sea. Up until this time it is just a beast, it is nothing. I see it as saving the whale from all this mischief, all these bad thoughts. How can I get the public to understand that this is not what they think it is?”

Griffin didn’t foresee what that new understanding would mean for himself, as he became the world’s most famous whale catcher.

“I had no idea at the time that would start a thought pattern that would bring my career to an end.”

But for Lolita, the capture era still goes on, despite attempts to free her. The Lummi Nation is seeking to retire her to a netted cove where she could be cared for. The Miami Seaquarium has refused, saying she is better off at the Seaquarium than at home in hostile waters, where her relatives struggle to survive.

Freeing her is about so much more than saving one whale, said Lummi Nation Chairman Jay Julius. It is about finally setting right the relationship not only with the orca, but with Puget Sound. “She was pimped out,” he said of Lolita. “Puget Sound has been pimped out.”

Colby, the historian, notes Lolita’s family is going hungry, poisoned by toxic fish, and barren of successful pregnancies for the past three years. Tahlequah, the mother orca who carried her dead baby whale for 17 days last summer to worldwide dismay, came to symbolize for many the orcas’ desperate plight.

We are still killing the southern residents for the sake of our own interests and economic gain, Colby said in an interview. “Lolita’s family is starving,” he said. “SeaWorld didn’t do that. The Miami Seaquarium didn’t do that.

“That is on us.”

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