The tragic reason Seattle Center never got a SeaWorld
Fifty years ago, Seattle was trying to decide what do with its center attraction in the wake of the World’s Fair.
One man came forward with the idea of privately-funded plan marine park. Think SeaWorld at the heart of Seattle – complete with a captive orca to perform shows.
The man, Ted Griffin, already had his star: Namu, captured in 1965, was the third orca ever captured and placed in captivity. Griffin, the creator of Seattle’s first aquarium, displayed this lone orca in a floating pen off Pier 56, where Elliott’s Oyster House is now.
Griffin proposed to move Namu to Seattle Center, housing the 7,500-pound male in a 100-by-160-foot pool with water pumped in from Elliott Bay.
Griffin wanted to add dolphins from California and pair Namu with a female orca that had been captured. The female orca, however, made a break for it before the two could meet.
Sports writer Hy Zimmerman weighed in with his support of the “Namuseum” idea: “Happiness is having a kidney-shaped playpen for Namu.”
This would not be a story about Seattle without a punchy City Council meeting. At this particular meeting, residents said they worried the marine park would hurt Seattle’s chances of getting a fancy oceanography research center, especially if the venture flopped and public confidence was eroded.
But it was John Sullivan, a high school student at Seattle Prep, who gave perhaps the most entertaining argument.
“The Center is principally a place for culture,” Sullivan said, according to The Seattle Times. “How would it be to come out of seeing ‘Hamlet’ and run into the whale park? Let’s face it, a whale just isn’t cultural.”
He went on to call the aquarium a “Mickey Mouse idea in the Center,” to which Griffin, 30, jumped up and yelled, “Young man, I’m offended!”
There were people who believed the space would better be used for youth activities — after all, they said, Seattleites had voted to pass a bond that would have paid for precisely that.
But not everyone was keen on having the young people around.
In a letter to the editor, a woman identified as Mrs. C.G., said she lived near Seattle Center and often walked through it.
“Some of the antics and talk by our youth there would put Namu to shame,” she wrote. “If the cultured are a bit apprehensive about running into a whale after a session with Hamlet, they can upgrade their sensitive tastes by visiting the colleges and watching students gulp goldfish.”
(This reporter asked her father, a Seattle teenager at the time, about this. He explained that swallowing goldfish was once a common hazing practice for fraternities.)
The City Council, with the enthusiastic support of Mayor James Braman, agreed to support the marine park plan on Feb. 1, 1966. But in an unexpected bookend to the month, Griffin withdrew his proposal on Feb. 28, saying he needed more time and would resubmit his proposal later.
Alas, the dream of the marine park came to a tragic end a few months later.
On a Saturday night in July, after days of apparently appearing “mopey,” Namu rammed the steel netting around his net. He was found dead five feet under the water, tangled in cables.
“He was almost through,” Griffin told the Times in an emotional story about the orca’s passing. “Only one fin was caught. He almost made it. I wish he had.” He told the newspaper he had no doubt that it was an escape attempt.
Griffin continued to capture and sell dozens of orcas to aquariums until the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, when hunting whales became illegal in the U.S.
Seattle’s city-owned aquarium, which opened in 1977, never displayed orcas.
The Seattle Center never did get an aquarium. But it got a carousel of professional sports, and currently hosts Storm basketball and Reign soccer.
As for Namu, following an autopsy, his skull and teeth were donated to the Burke Museum.
His carcass was turned into chicken feed.