Namu the Killer Whale premieres at Orpheum Theatre in Seattle on August 1, 1966.

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 8/19/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21294

On August 1, 1966, at a charity event at the Orpheum Theatre in Seattle, an audience views the first showing of the movie Namu the Killer Whale, produced by Ivan Tors (1916-1983) and filmed in the San Juan Islands and at Rich Cove in Kitsap County. Enthusiastic San Juan Islanders and island locations are featured in the movie, which capitalizes on the enormous popularity of the real Namu, a young orca captured a year earlier in British Columbia and moved to Seattle by Ted Griffin (b. 1935). Over the next few years more orcas will be seized and sold to marine parks but growing knowledge of their intelligence and family life will lead to increasing questions about the ethics and techniques of capturing and exhibiting these animals. By the early 1970s horrific stories of orca deaths and stress during capture attempts will prompt a shift in public opinion and a call for protection of these special creatures. In 1972 Congress will pass the Marine Mammal Protection Act outlawing the capture or killing of marine mammals.

A Fatal Reputation

As the top predator of the oceans, Orcinus orca had long had a reputation as a fearsome monster that would attack and eat indiscriminately anything it met, leading to the common name "killer whale." Although full-grown males can reach 30 feet in length and 20,000 pounds in weight, orcas are swift and nimble, able to attain swimming speeds of 30 miles per hour for short spurts when pursuing prey. As early as the first century, Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that "a killer whale cannot be properly depicted or described except as an enormous mass of flesh armed with savage teeth" (Hoyt, 12). And for many terrified fishermen and seafarers who encountered them, it was the huge jaws containing 48 to 52 interlocking teeth that assured orcas' renown as fierce killers who should be hunted and destroyed whenever possible.

By the 1950s, fishermen and whalers around the world were killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of orcas each year. In 1954, although there had never been any confirmed attacks on humans, U.S. soldiers were dispatched to help Icelandic fishing vessels in a coordinated venture that resulted in hundreds of orcas being slaughtered in one operation. In the following years it was common for the U.S. Navy to use orcas for target practice, and the December 1956 issue of Naval Aviation News reported with apparent satisfaction that each year U.S. forces slew hundreds of killer whales using machine guns, rockets, and depth charges. Scientists, fascinated by their size and swimming abilities, were also responsible for killing many orcas. Rather than observational or other studies of orca behavior, investigations were limited to examination of stomach contents and other anatomical and physiological analyses of dead specimens.

When the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, was building a new British Columbia exhibit hall in the early 1960s and wanted a sculpture of an orca to put on display, hunters were dispatched to kill a whale to be used as a model. A young orca was found and shot -- several times -- but the whale inconveniently didn't die and the disconcerted hunters, at the direction of the aquarium curator, finally towed the animal to Vancouver where it was eventually confined in a makeshift pen at Jericho Army Base and named Moby Doll. A few animal-protection organizations protested the capture, but there was no outraged public environmental movement or outcry at the time about the cruel treatment. Moby Doll, or Moby Dick as he was found to be when autopsied, succumbed a month after capture.

Ted Griffin and His Orca Quest

Among the few scientists and others who were given access to Moby Doll was Ted Griffin, who was thrilled to have the opportunity to feed the orca and desperately wanted to take the animal home to Seattle. He later admitted, "'I wanted Moby Doll so much I considered stealing her'" (Colby, 64). Griffin had grown up in the Pacific Northwest and from childhood had been fascinated with fish, constructing a large saltwater aquarium when just in his teens and purchasing, soon after it was first put on the market, scuba gear for underwater exploration and collection of specimens. He was befriended by the curator of the Tacoma Municipal Aquarium and eagerly expanded his knowledge of marine life. At the age of 25 he began constructing his own Seattle Marine Aquarium (not associated with the current Seattle Aquarium), which opened in 1962 at Pier 56 on the Seattle waterfront.

While on collecting trips in the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea between the Washington mainland and Vancouver Island, he observed that orcas seemed to ignore the human divers they encountered -- who, nevertheless, minding the orcas' reputation, immediately retreated to safety when the whales appeared. Perhaps the assumptions and anecdotes about these creatures were wrong. Griffin became obsessed with obtaining an orca for his aquarium and learning more about orca behavior. His many attempts to capture a specimen were unsuccessful; he was so persistent in his pursuit of the orcas that they learned to recognize the sound of his boat and actively avoided it.

In June 1965 Griffin received a phone call. Two orcas had been inadvertently trapped in a fishing net abandoned in a storm near the small town of Namu on the British Columbia coast north of Vancouver Island. One eventually found its way out, but several aquariums and individuals were interested in obtaining the remaining animal and a bidding war ensued. Griffin, whose own financial resources were severely limited, immediately began desperately seeking funds, enlisting National Geographic Magazine in his project and even soliciting small contributions from Seattle waterfront businesses and stores. He hurried to Canada hoping to purchase the whale, offering $8,000 cash. The orca, dubbed Namu ("whirlwind" in the local indigenous language) for the place he was captured, was his; all Griffin had to do was get him to Seattle, a mere 500 miles away.

The ensuing voyage was one of continuing challenges, both natural and governmental. A large, hastily constructed traveling pen was slowly towed behind, first, a purse-seine fishing vessel and, then, a Seattle tugboat. Other orcas were encountered who surrounded the pen, disrupted the progress, and clearly stressed the young captive. He was not eating as much as he should; and the weather was frequently uncooperative. Questions arose about whether Griffin would have to pay duty on the whale on entering U.S. waters (it was decided that since he was being brought in for scientific and exhibition purposes, he was exempt) and what he could be fed. State law decreed that salmon be used and processed only for human consumption; Namu regularly devoured considerably more than 200 pounds of salmon a day. When prevailed upon for a dispensation, the Washington State Fisheries Director ruled that Namu posed a special case and issued a 30-day salmon-eating permit. It was hoped that he could be weaned to another kind of fish before the permit expired. And then there was the issue of whether Griffin would owe use tax to the state since Namu had been purchased out of state for use in the state. It was a conundrum as there was "no precedent on taxing whales or figuring their worth" ("Federal ...").

Meanwhile, Namu frenzy had seized the Pacific Northwest. "Even as the Voting Rights Act made its way through the U.S. Congress and thousands of troops deployed weekly for South Viet Nam, Griffin and his orca captured headlines in Seattle" (Colby, 79). Pages of articles appeared daily on every detail of the trip and plans for the arrival. Local teenagers created a new dance, the Namu, featuring creative wiggling moves: the "sounding," "blowing," and "fin." Thousands turned out to watch the flotilla travel under the Deception Pass Bridge between Fidalgo and Whidbey islands, creating an eight-hour traffic jam. When the whale finally arrived at the aquarium just a month after its capture, the mayor of Seattle proclaimed a Ted Griffin and Namu Day.

And that was just the beginning -- Namu was a celebrity unlike any in Seattle history. At the annual Seafair festival parade, balloons with "Yoo Hoo, Namu" printed on them became the most popular purchase. One rock 'n' roll group assumed the name "The Dorsals," and their song "Namu" (with the Gatormen) became the all-time-greatest radio hit for Lynnwood's Camelot Studios. Namu's name was invoked in advertisements for everything from real estate to vegetables. The local chapter of the weight-reducing organization "TOPS" (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) adopted the name "Namu Chapter;" although the 12,000-pound orca was considered an honorary member, he was not, the chapter conceded, actually required to lose any weight. Griffin, who was $60,000 in debt after Namu's purchase and transport, formed Namu, Inc. to handle the extensive merchandizing being clamored for by an obsessed community, and he copyrighted the phrase "Namu the Whale." He and Namu even posed for pictures supporting a Seattle school levy. Visitors to Griffin's aquarium increased tenfold; more than 100,000 paid to see Namu in the first five weeks.

Namu Becomes a Movie Star

One of the early visitors to Namu's enclosure at the aquarium was Ivan Tors, the well-known film and television producer whose credits included the TV show Daktari and the TV series and movies featuring "Flipper," a dolphin. His specialty was films and television programs with underwater scenes, for which his Miami studio had special facilities and employed experienced cinematographers and divers. He had just finished work on the underwater shark segments in the James Bond film Thunderball and was interested in doing a movie featuring Namu. United Artists paid $25,000 for the rights to the film and agreed to pay all whale maintenance expenses and to hire Griffin as a technical advisor.

At the end of the summer's exhibition season, Griffin was concerned that Namu was not eating as he should and seemed moody in his restricted pen. Furthermore the water in Elliott Bay was murky and not conducive to filming and Namu needed additional training. The decision was made to move him to Rich Cove near Port Orchard in south Kitsap County where a tide-cleaned lagoon could be netted off, giving Namu clear water and space to explore. He began to eat better and Griffin continued to establish a relationship of trust with the whale, who responded positively and, indeed, seemed to enjoy human contact. Griffin hand-fed him and learned that he liked to be scrubbed with a large, long-handled brush.

The script prepared for the movie focuses on a naturalist named Hank Donner (played by Robert Lansing [1928-1994]) who, with his assistant Deke (Richard Erdman [1925-2019]), is studying orcas near a fishing village whose inhabitants view the whales with loathing as both vicious and a threat to their livelihoods. When one of them, Joe Clauson (John Anderson [1922-1992]) attempts to shoot a whale that Hank has penned with net into a cove for study (and named, not unexpectedly, Namu), battle lines are drawn. Only the owner of the local marine-supply shop, Kate Rand (Lee Meriwether [b. 1935]) and her young daughter Lisa (Robin Mattson [b. 1956]), who becomes fascinated by the whale, seem to be on Hank's side. Eventually Hank so befriends the whale that he is able to swim with him and ride on his back; villagers remain skeptical even as they see how friendly the orca seems, and opinions only begin to change when Namu allows Kate to swim and play with him. However Joe is stubbornly unconvinced and again tries to shoot the whale from just outside the net. Hank opens the pen, and Namu swims out, dumps Joe and his rifle from his boat into the water, and then, rather than attacking him, carries Joe to safety near the shore. All ends happily with Joe's new appreciation of the animal and Namu swimming off to freedom and the companionship of a pod of passing orcas.

The movie was filmed in two general locations. Most of the underwater scenes and some not requiring the "villagers" were shot at Rich Cove where Griffin, in a concealing wetsuit, could substitute in much of the filming for Lansing. Many scripted interactions between Hank and Namu would be determined by Ted Griffin's actual experiences with the whale. In Rich Cove Griffin had progressed to getting Namu to perform specific maneuvers, swimming with the orca, and eventually riding on his back, clinging to the tall dorsal fin. Experienced as cinematographer Lamar Boren (1917-1986) was at underwater shots with marine mammals and even sharks, when production began in October 1965 he was unusually cautious while first in the cove filming Namu. Even more apprehensive was Lansing, who had never seen a killer whale before and had to be convinced that Namu was not a threat and would prove to be a playful companion. His first in-water encounters were extremely tentative, but he too found that he could work with the orca and he even came to find the experience exhilarating. Meriwether (although she would not be filmed with the actual Namu) also became friends with the whale, scrubbing his back and belly, and young Robin Mattson learned to hand-feed the orca.

Most other filming took place on and near San Juan Island. In March 1966 a crew of 60 took up residence in Friday Harbor (the only town on the island and the county seat) and Roche Harbor. Local residents were delighted to be hired as angry villagers, and one islander even was chosen for a small feature role as Carrie, an irascible, rifle-toting village resident ready to believe the worst about orcas. Clara Tarte (1899-1990) and her husband Reuben (1901-1968) had purchased the famous Roche Harbor Lime Company property, and they and their family were turning it into a resort (which remains a popular twenty-first century San Juan Island destination). Tarte was surprised and pleased to be "discovered" in her mid-60s by the film-company manager, who saw her while at the resort and then introduced her to the film's director, Laslo Benedek (1905-1992). She was perfect for the part, Benedek immediately decided, based on her determined walk and characteristically rough voice, but he warned her that she needed to de-glamorize herself to take on the role of a tough village fisherman's wife. All the local residents who were hired, both adults and children, were prominently listed in the community's weekly paper, the Friday Harbor Journal. Among them were well-known islanders Reuben Tarte, Lee Bave (1910-2008) and her husband Milt (1918-1985), and artist Marjorie Walker (1906-1992) and her son Tim (1946-2002), who was cast as a store employee.

The only star not on location at San Juan Island was Namu himself, who remained at Rich Cove. All orca scenes shot at the island were done with a stand-in mechanical whale fabricated of wood and maneuvered by technicians. The temperature of the water at Lonesome Cove, in which Lee Meriwether had to swim with the stand-in wearing a fetching but short-sleeved, white, lacy-looking wetsuit of dubious insulating value, was an all-too-real 40 degrees, and she earned an appreciative round of applause from the locals for her determined performance when she finished shooting the scene.

In addition to Lonesome Cove, located near Roche Harbor at the north end of the island, filming took place in Friday Harbor on the docks, at the Friday Harbor Canning Company, and at Williamson's Marina (which had to be made to look far more rustic than its normal state), where the sign was changed to make it into W. Rand's shop. The only real challenge was that the contents of the store had to remain available for purchase throughout filming. The project was not without its diversions. At Lonesome Cove a passing yacht of students from Portland's Reed College (a bit scruffy in 1960s beards, long hair, and shabby, skin-tight jeans and jackets) pulled into shore and the young people enthusiastically began taking photos of the actors, both professional and local. Unknown to them, some of the actors, equally entranced by the visitors, moved into the cover of the woods and simultaneously began photographing the students.

As filming was wrapping up on San Juan Island, the production company hosted a dance at Roche Harbor, featuring a band from Bellingham, in appreciation for the assistance, hospitality, and participation of the island community. It was later reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Friday Harbor had the additional benefit of approximately $100,000 in revenue from the production company's expenditures on lodging, food, hiring local actors, and other related filming costs.

Altogether, shooting the movie took more than five months and the production was well over budget. As the director and producer completed the film in the studio, Namu was moved once again, back to Seattle and a new, much larger (100 feet by 95, 71 feet deep) enclosure. Griffin was able to put on shows for aquarium customers showing off the new tricks that Namu had learned over the past months. The whale was substantially larger than when he had arrived in Seattle the first time. Because multiple takes while filming required that he repeat his tricks over and over again, his motivation was maintained by having extra treats of salmon, and he was estimated to have gained 1,000 pounds since the previous summer.

Namu the Killer Whale premiered at the Orpheum Theatre in Seattle on August 1, 1966. That first showing was a benefit event for the Seattle Artificial Kidney Center (now Northwest Kidney Centers), with tickets ranging from $5 for the patron (loge) seats and $3 for adult general admission to $1.50 for children under 14. Clara Tarte, by then a local celebrity who was interviewed on television before the premiere and even invited to relate her Hollywood experiences at a Seattle Tennis Club luncheon, attended with the film's stars and other notables and the entire Seafair festival honor court. The reviews the next day were decidedly mixed. The most positive comments were reserved for the beautiful natural settings and the scenes of Namu and Hank in the water, which were praised as very impressive. However, while "the San Juans never looked more idyllic and an astoundingly large number of the performers looked like real people ... because much of the cast was recruited from islanders" (Faber), reviewers generally agreed that "when [the film] gets the whale involved in a silly people-made plot, it becomes soft-headed and saccharine" (Johnson).

Sadly, the star of the film was no longer at the aquarium for his fans to visit. A few weeks before the movie opened, Namu died tragically as the result of an anaerobic bacterial infection probably contracted from Elliott Bay's polluted waters. He drowned when, it is thought, in delirium from the toxins, he repeatedly thrashed and crashed into the side of his pen, became trapped underwater, and was unable to reach the surface to breathe.

Changing Views About Captive Orcas

Although devastated by Namu's death, Ted Griffin and others continued their efforts to capture orcas for sale and exhibition. By 1976, approximately 270 orcas had been captured in the Salish Sea (some multiple times); at least 12 died during capture and more than 50 were sold for display. Only one, Lolita (or Tokitae as she is called by Lummi Nation Indians who consider orcas part of their extended family), was alive in 2021, held at the Miami Seaquarium. In an incident at Penn Cove near Whidbey Island in 1970 a superpod of orcas (perhaps as many as 90) was the target of a capture event that took the lives of five orcas (four of them calves) and reaped six captives (including Lolita). The public was horrified when it was revealed that the four calves were slit open and filled with rocks and weights so that the bodies would sink and their deaths perhaps go unnoticed. News reports and photographs were distressing. Witnesses were appalled at the suffering of the animals and their frantic calls to one another. Letters were sent to the state governor's office protesting the inhumane treatment of the orcas. Once perceived as pests to be eliminated from the seas, orcas had become admirable emblems of the diversity of marine wildlife, worthy of being studied humanely and without preconceptions, not abused and exploited.

When the movie was released in 1966, posters, theater previews, and other publicity visuals for Namu the Killer Whale urged audiences to "Make Room in Your Heart for a 6-ton Pet." In the ensuing years, orca research definitively overturned the concepts of the orca as a savage and mindless killer and even less a cuddly pet. It is, instead, a complex being with a strong family association, sophisticated communication skills, and great intelligence. In 1972 Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act "in response to increasing concerns among scientists and the public that significant declines in some species of mammals were caused by human activities" ("Laws & Policies ..."). No longer could orcas or other whales, seals, sea lions, and other mammals be hunted or captured in U.S. waters or by U.S. citizens on the open seas, and other provisions of the law provided for the management of marine ecosystems as necessary to assure their health and sustainability.

The question of whether any good came of orca capture persists, especially as the body of information about these spectacular animals grows. While recognizing the inhumanity and commercial objectives that characterized the attempts to capture and exploit the orcas, it may also be conceded that Namu and other captives were instrumental in educating the public about orcas and in stimulating early scientific research on their keen intelligence and behavior.

Whatever its standing in movie history, Namu the Killer Whale (later re-released with the alternative title Namu, My Best Friend for broader, family-centric audience appeal) was for many movie-goers across the U.S. and overseas their introduction to these whales. The film helped in conveying the message that, far from being the ferocious monsters of legend, orcas are fascinating creatures worthy of respect, study, and protection as their rapidly diminishing numbers struggle for survival.


Sources:

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