As children, most of us have dreams that aren't ever realized. We imagine a
world where we are able to travel through time....or fly through the clouds.
But once in a while, some children manage to make their dreams come true.
And Ted Griffin was such child. His dream was always to capture a
dolphin/whale big enough to ride. But back then - in the 1960's - a captured
dolphin/whale was unheard of. Little was known about the killer whales except
that they were vicious predators - and probably man-eaters as well. Griffin
would spend many years and risk bankruptcy trying to prove to himself and the
world that he could ride a whale. One day, he finally did.
Ted Griffin had been so curious about marine life as a child, he would put
lead weights on his sneakers, coax someone to use a bicycle pump to push oxygen
down a tube into a diving helmet made out of an old water tank, and stay
underwater for as long as possible. He spent many days floating on the water
in Puget Sound, in Washington state -- drifting aimlessly with the tide that
pulled him away from shore and eventually carried him safely back.
In 1954, after two years at Colorado College, Griffin returned to Puget Sound
to work in a fish hatchery. Eight years later, in 1962, he opened an
aquarium at the Seattle World's Fair. Griffin's Seattle Marine Aquarium was
a success, and it made him more determined than ever to capture a whale.
What Griffin lacked in knowledge about capturing a whale he made up for in
effort: he tracked down whales in the Puget Sound area by calling the Coast
Guard for help, carefully noting any patterns in the locations that whales were
surfacing, and even knocking on doors of waterfront residents for information
about whale sightings. But his early whale-capture trips, replete with
helicopters and a flotilla of boats, ended in failure. After three years of
trying - Griffin faced bankruptcy.
Through all of this, with the help of his brother Jim, Griffin managed to
scrape by. And his aquarium fared better after the chance arrival of two
orphaned seal pups. Ticket sales also soared after publicist Gary Boyker
suggested Griffin capture a few sharks. Still, Griffin kept hoping - someday
- he would find his whale.
In June of 1965 his prayers were answered. Fishermen accidentally caught a
22-foot killer whale in Namu, British Columbia. However, purchasing a whale
and bringing it to Puget Sound from British Columbia would prove an
extraordinary feat. After raising $8,000 - much of which was collected at
the last minute from Puget Sound store owners on a Saturday morning because
banks were closed - Griffin flew to claim his prize from fisherman William
Lechkobit on the Bounty Hunter. What Griffin didn't know was that not
only his perseverance but his physical strength was about to be tested. Once he
arrived in Namu with $8,000 in small bills --ones, five's and ten's --the
fishermen challenged him to an arm wrestling contest, the outcome of which
would determine whether Griffin could purchase the whale. Says Griffin of his
wrestling partner, "whether he gave up or not I don't know, but the deal was
done at that moment."
In his haste to purchase Namu - named after the area where he was found -
Griffin discovered he didn't quite know how to transport the 9,000 pound
killer whale 400 miles back to the Seattle Marine Aquarium. When he asked
Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium for suggestions , they told him, "If we
knew the answer to that one, we'd have bought the whale." Griffin quickly found
welders and assembled enough people and steel to build a forty-by-forty foot
square pen held afloat by 41 bright 55-gallon orange oil drums. Nineteen days
later, thousands of Puget Sound onlookers gathered as a tugboat arrived with
Namu in the hastily constructed pen.
In 1965, shortly after Namu's arrival, Griffin finally rode his killer whale,
fulfilling his childhood dream. In the process, however, he also came
to befriend the whale for whom he developed "an infinity of feeling of
kinship." This close relationship, coupled with Namu's ability to follow
commands and identify Griffin even as he walked with a crowd of people, came as
a shock to most observers and contributed to a dramatic change in the world's
attitude toward killer whales. Suddenly these creatures, previously regarded
as huge sharks and shot for sport, became almost human.
For the next year - until June of 1966 - Griffin's life was a crash course in
caring for the first whale to survive more than three months in captivity.
Becoming more and more certain of the orca's amazing intellect and
communication abilities, Griffin sought to learn their language. Almost
overnight, Griffin also became a celebrity, catching the attention of the
Pentagon - which
interviewed him extensively about killer whales - and movie producers, who
eventually made the film, "Namu, the Killer Whale. "
However, shortly before a year had passed, Griffin lost the friend he had
struggled so hard to find. Namu drowned in June 1966 due to an anaerobic
bacteria in his digestive tract, called clostridium perfringens, that
caused severe colic. Griffin was badly shaken by the experience. Although he
continued to capture and sell whales to marine parks and aquariums until 1972,
he never found a replacement for Namu.
Today, more than thirty years after their first encounter, tears well up in
Griffin's eyes when he describes the first time that Namu echoed his words and
appeared to be saying "hi".
Griffin lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife and owns a technology