How One Man's Obsessive Orca Hunt Left A Legacy Of Controversy And Conservation

Oct 14, 2017

This story originally aired on October 8, 2016.

These days, the prospect of seeing the Pacific Northwest’s iconic orca whales in the wild attracts thousands of tourists annually to whale-watching boats or shore-side excursions.  But it wasn’t that long ago that these majestic endangered creatures were seen as a menace.

The person who turned the tide on that thinking was, perhaps ironically, someone who pioneered the controversial practice of hunting orcas so they could be put on captive display in aquariums.

In 1965, Orca Hunter Ted Griffin became the first person to ever swim publicly with a killer whale. He also founded and operated Seattle’s first aquarium, the Seattle Marine Aquarium on Pier 56 in Elliot Bay, where he showcased Namu, the famous orca who also starred in a Hollywood movie of the same name made that year.

Griffin went on to capture and sell dozens of orcas to other aquariums during the late 1960s and early 1970s. That practice earned him lasting infamy in many circles, from people who find keeping such large and intelligent mammals captive inhumane.  But at the time, it represented a radical change in the way humans related to killer whales.

With their enormous appetites for salmon and massive size, killer whales were viewed as a nuisance by commercial fishermen. Commercial whale hunting persisted in the Northwest through the mid-1960s. Up until then, even marine scientists could not conceive of studying live orcas.

A New Perspective On Orcas

“The alternative was not between whale watching and whale catching. It was between whale killing and whale catching,” said Jason Colby, a professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who is writing a book about Ted Griffin. He sees him as a pivotal figure, who ushered in our modern era of ecological thinking about orcas and the marine environment they inhabit.

Colby says Griffin’s mission to befriend and swim with an orca whale was radical, at a time when the primary paradigm of marine mammal science was “kill and dissect.”

“The thing that made him strange in the eyes of many was that he was actually willing to go out and try to figure out a way to catch them live. And even – God forbid – swim with them,” Colby said.

A Childhood Dream

For his part, Griffin says his quest was a lifelong dream that began with his youth in Tacoma, where he would spend hours under water, diving from the shores of Gravelly Lake.

His neighbor had a horse and Griffin would watch as he rode it in the lake.

“And I thought, ‘Gee, I wish I could do that,’” Griffin said.

Then one day he saw an image from Greek mythology on a coin, of someone riding a dolphin.

“And I thought, ‘I could do that.’ And it wasn’t till later that I thought a whale would be more suitable,” Griffin said.

This idea became a deeply held dream for Griffith, a vision that possessed him.

“Probably something that few of us ever experience, but my whole life was focused on getting in the water with a whale and swimming with a whale and making friends with it,” Griffin said.

Obsession Becomes Reality

He tells the story in his 1982 book, "Namu. Quest for the Killer Whale."   

“And the things that I did, nobody in their right mind would have done. But to me, It was just a natural consequence of what I wanted, more than anything in life, I wanted to be friends with that whale.”

He says he put up a sign advertising an orca attraction at his Seattle aquarium years before he had one and then spent tens of thousands of dollars he didn’t have chartering helicopters and sea planes, attempting to lasso an orca by jumping out and swimming alongside it. None of that worked.

His big break came in July 1965, after Canadian fishermen in Namu, British Columbia accidentally captured one in their nets. Griffin scrounged together $8,000 in cash on a Sunday morning and flew in to pay for the whale, which he then had to build a huge pen for to tow the animal 400 miles back to Seattle. It took 19 days.  

“And that was the beginning of the time I spent in the water with Namu,” Griffin says, somewhat wistfully.

At Play With A Killer Whale

He says the orca’s intelligence was almost immediately recognizable. First, Namu would mimic the squeaking noises Griffin made back to him.

“I thought - you know, I know I’m going to be able to talk to this whale. When I surfaced, working in the water, the whale was three feet away, just looking at me. And I thought, gee — he could have had me for dinner right there,” he said.

But Namu didn’t, instead engaging Griffin in interactive play, for hours on end.

“[He] seemed to enjoy my company. In fact, it got to the point where he wouldn’t let me go. He wanted me to stick around all the time,” he said.

Griffin says he knows it sounds crazy. Perhaps he should have been frightened, but he was having the time of his life.  

“I want to say it was scary. But it wasn’t. It was just — I was being cautious and careful. But I knew I could do it. I had so much drive and energy to get in the water and be with that whale and make friends with that whale, that’s all I wanted in the world,” Griffin said.  

A Love Affair With Namu

He says the interaction quickly produced a deep connection with Namu, a relationship that he describes in almost human terms.

“I guess I have to say that in my way, I was in love with the whale. I was in love with the whale before and I was in love with the whale, when I actually got next to him and when I realized that he knew me, he could tell me from other people, that he would come when I would call, that he would respond to my actions if I gave him a signal; he would obey immediately. He seemed to want to please me. And at that point, the bond continued to grow,” Griffin said.  

He even began to wonder what was going on with himself, but it didn’t stop him from spending up to 14 hours a day in the water with Namu.

“Too long.  I’d get out I couldn’t walk, my fingers were all rough, my skin diving suit was so sore I couldn’t take it off.  But I had to stay in the water till I had just about drowned,” Griffin said.

Their obsessive play went on for nearly a year. But then Namu got sick and died shortly thereafter.

“He did get sick,” Griffin said, from an infection. “It turned out to be the polluted water of the Puget Sound, Elliott Bay. And he died from a poison called clostridium. And as a result of that, that basically ended my relationship with that whale.”

An Irreplaceable Loss

He was devastated and says he never really got over the loss. He became depressed after Namu’s death – the talk of which seems somewhat raw, even today.

“I have to be careful when I talk about it, because I keep thinking it’s yesterday or today or tomorrow,” Griffin said. “But -- I wanted to make friends with another whale, but it was not possible.”

He never managed to connect with another orca in the same way. That lack of connection is what Griffin says eventually drove him to get out of the business in 1972, when he sold his stake in the Seattle Marine Aquarium.

But before he got out, together with his partner Don Goldsberry, Griffin went on to capture dozens more killer whales in the Puget Sound region, which they sold to SeaWorld and other aquariums for display. The pair remains notorious for pioneering the live capture of orcas using nets.  The heart-wrenching details of some of those events, such as the infamous capture at Penn Cove in 1970, are described in the 2013 documentary, "Blackfish."  

A Complex Legacy

Still, Griffith says he has no regrets. Before he made friends with Namu, he says no one believed it was possible to swim with an orca; no one knew of their gentle intelligence.

“At the time I captured whales, they were still being shot or killed and sliced up for research,” Griffin said.

He says he put the orca in front of the scientific community in a way that had never happened before, enabling whole new fields of research.

“I had the background, the energy, the desire, the focus and I let nothing get in my way until I got my whale. And no matter what anybody said, I never stopped till I achieved my objective,” he said.

Now 80, Griffith says he still dreams of his time in the water with Namu.  

“What I did was something I would do again. And I believed in it and I believed in my association with animals and for that reason I’m perfectly satisfied with my life to this point.”…

When asked what he would say if he could speak to Namu now, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Come back, I’m still ready for you,” Griffin said.