In 1965, a local businessman towed a giant orca into Elliott Bay. Namu the Killer Whale became a huge hit with the public, inspiring local musicians and even a movie.
The story begins north of Vancouver Island in June 1965, near the tiny fishing village of Namu, British Columbia. Fishermen retrieving gear that had snagged on rocks made a surprising discovery. A giant orca was trapped in a cove by a runaway net
Word of the captive orca reached Seattle and a man named Ted Griffin. Griffin owned an aquarium on the waterfront, and had long been fascinated with whales. In short order, Griffin bought the whale — now called Namu — for $8,000. Then, he made arrangements to bring Namu home to Seattle using a floating cage pulled behind a tugboat.
It's been almost 50 years since Namu arrived in Seattle, where his floating cage was first towed into Elliott Bay the morning of July 28, 1965. Small boats bobbed on the waters of Puget Sound, aircraft circled overhead and spectators lined the waterfront to greet Seattle's newest celebrity.
Namu quickly became the waterfront's biggest draw. Huge audiences paid to see the killer whale up close and to watch Ted Griffin teach Namu tricks.
Attitudes toward captive whales have changed in the decades since Namu first appeared, and it's fair to say that most people nowadays wouldn't stand for a whale being treated this way. But in Seattle in 1965, local bands even got into the act, celebrating Namu with rockin' tribute songs. A band called The Dorsals & The Gatormen performed Killer Whale in honor of Namu:
"Gotta killer whale in tow, Namu in the sea!
Gotta killer whale in tow, glad he's not after me!
Five tons of whale in tow, and that's a great big thing.
Movin' in his playpen, Namu's really king.
And then, Hollywood came calling. In the fall of '65, Griffin towed Namu to Rich Cove near Bremerton to film outdoor scenes for a movie starring the whale. Also in the cast were a couple of human stars: Robert Lansing and Lee Meriwether.
As Namu's popularity grew, Griffin went into business capturing more whales and selling them to places like Seaworld.
Meanwhile, Namu was about to become a movie star. On August 1st, 1966, "Namu The Killer Whale" premiered at the Orpheum Theater in Seattle, just eight blocks from Ted Griffin's aquarium on Elliott Bay where Namu had lived for almost a year.
But Namu didn't live there anymore. Three weeks earlier, after a brief illness, the killer whale had died in his waterfront pen from a bacterial infection.
In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Harassment and capture of whales and other marine mammals in American waters was outlawed for good.
This story originally aired on July 11, 2011.