Killer whales were shot and reviled, then captured and shipped around the world, before finally being protected as highly intelligent, socially sophisticated animals.
A look back in history at how The Seattle Times covered news in different eras can shock our sensibilities today. Historic perspective reveals how much thinking has changed — and invites consideration of how views that seem normal today will be perceived decades from now. The Times’ coverage was typical of how other media covered orcas during the period.
Here are some key moments in the capture era, pulled from The Seattle Times archive.
Today, capture of highly intelligent, socially sophisticated killer whales is illegal in the United States. But when Ted Griffin towed Namu the killer whale home to Seattle for display at the Seattle Marine Aquarium to be the world’s first captive display killer whale, arriving July 28, 1965, Griffin was given the key to the city and welcomed as a hero.
The capture era marked the beginning of human understanding of killer whales, including respect for them as intelligent, highly social and sentient animals. Yet when Ted Griffin took his first ride on Namu, The Seattle Times crowed that he had broken the whale to the saddle.
The Seattle Times covered whale captures like sporting events, rooting for Ted Griffin as he took to the skies scouting for orcas to capture.
When Namu died July 9, 1966, there was much about Ted Griffin’s grief but little about the raw sewage in Elliott Bay that killed the whale. Modern sewage treatment would finally begin in Seattle later that year.
Even as the captive whale trade ramped up to an international business, the coverage was more awe-struck than critical, as Seattle became an international hub for captured marine mammals shipped around the world.
For further exploration, try mining the free online databases of newspapers available from the Seattle Public Library to see how the understanding of killer whales has changed from reviled to revered and, finally, protected. The Seattle Times archive is also available for research.
The Washington State Archives in Olympia maintains a significant collection of documents and photos from the capture era for study. Access is free and open to the public and expert staff are available to assist with research.
Books on the capture era include “Puget Sound Whales for Sale,” by Sandra Pollard, and “Orca, How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator,” by Jason Colby.