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Sunday, November 23, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Erik Lacitis

Remembering Namu: An Ex-Hunter Looks Back, No Regrets In His Wake

Seattle Times Staff Columnist

It takes me a while to get ahold of Ted Griffin. There is a voice mail at his home, but he doesn't return calls, especially to the press. Why not? To get reviled again as the heartless whale hunter? The profiteer who trapped those magnificent killer whales in Northwest waters, then shipped them off to be gawked at in aquariums around the world?

No, thanks. Ted Griffin keeps to himself.

But how the TV cameras would have loved to know that Griffin did pay a visit to Dyes Inlet not long ago, to take a look at the 19 killer whales that stayed a month and became star tourist attractions before swimming out on Wednesday.

How do you feel these days, Ted? Are you sorry you captured them, beginning in the mid-1960s, until state law restricted their capture in 1972? Do you still think about Namu? How do you feel, Ted?

They always alluded to Ted on the whale-watching boats taking tourists to Dyes Inlet. Maybe they didn't mention Ted by name, but the guides inevitably mentioned the whale hunting, and inevitably the tourists shook their heads in dismay.

Maybe they'd just watched a killer whale leap out of the water. Maybe they'd just seen a group of three or four of the animals swim by just 50 feet away, their black-and-white bodies effortlessly gliding through the water.

Well, of course they all agree with the tour boat's guide: Such a magnificent creature shouldn't be imprisoned in some concrete tank. It should be . . . free!

Ted Griffin and his partner, Don Goldsberry, were the hunters who supplied the world's aquariums with killer whales. During their partnership they sold some 30 whales, although they rounded up probably 10 times that many. The others either escaped or were released. Griffin says the whales sold for $20,000 to $25,000 apiece. After all his expenses, he says, he showed a zero bank account for his whale-hunting days.

There wasn't anything delicate about capturing an 8,000-pound animal. The techniques, at various times, included harpooning a whale in its thick blubber so that it could be tracked with a red buoy tied to the harpoon line. It included dropping underwater firecrackers to make the whales swim away from the noise. It included corralling the whales inside purse seiner nets until they had no escape, or lassoing them with ropes as uncaptured whales cried out.

There were 11 whale deaths in the captures made when Griffin was in the business. One particular incident finally cemented public opinion against the whale hunters. Three baby whales washed up on shore. Rocks had been tied to them.

Griffin says the net in which the whales were being kept had been sabotaged, cut, and the whales died when they tangled themselves. By then, Griffin and Goldsberry didn't want any more bad publicity. They had previously turned over dead whales to the government or taken them to a rendering plant. Inevitably, somebody would take a photo. Better to tie rocks to the whales' tails and sink them.

I keep making calls, trying to find Ted Griffin. Finally I get his work number. He's now 62, divorced a long time ago, involved in a computer business that transfers data to CDs. I reach him on his work cellular phone. He's on the highway, on the way to do business, and we talk.

Ted Griffin couldn't help himself. He drove out to Dyes Inlet to look at the whales. They really shouldn't be there, especially for that length of time, he thought to himself. Whatever you might think of Griffin, he learned plenty about whales from all those hunts.

He stood on shore and used binoculars. He saw the dozens and dozens of boats - on some weekends, 500 boats of all sizes have crowded the small inlet - filled with gawkers. He saw the whales, and things didn't look right. They were moving slowly, had shallow breathing. Even their jumps didn't look right.

The tourists, they might think that the whales jumping meant everything was fine. "It can also indicate frustration and anguish," Griffin says. "They were exhibiting all the behavior of a captive whale."

You take a look at a chart of the waters, and you can see that to swim out, the whales have to travel through a channel that's maybe 21 feet deep, when whales in the wild prefer much deeper waters.

The best thing that could have happened to get the whales moving was the bad weather of this past week. The inlet emptied of gawkers' boats, and Griffin thinks that maybe then the whales were free to range about, find that exit. If they hadn't, Griffin thinks nets should have been used to move them out at high tide.

But, well, Griffin didn't volunteer his expertise. These days, who wants to hear from a whale hunter, even though he spent hundreds of hours in their midst?

The cell phone fades in and out, and we keep talking. I ask about Namu. Do you still think about him?

"I do. Every day," Griffin says. "It was a time I just wish would have been able to go on forever."

Fifteen years ago, Griffin wrote a book called "Namu, Quest for the Killer Whale." It is a book about how the hunter became the haunted.

"I had loved Namu passionately, perhaps with the same capacity and energy that often exists between women and men," Griffin wrote. "I had wanted to spend every minute with my companion."

Namu was the killer whale who changed how the world thought of these animals, which are not really whales but big dolphins.

In 1965, Griffin was running the Seattle Marine Aquarium when he was contacted by Canadian commercial fishermen. They had accidentally trapped a killer whale in their nets, and were selling it for $8,000. Griffin jumped at the chance.

In a 19-day journey that received front-page publicity, Namu the whale was taken in a floating pen on a 400-mile journey to Seattle. Suddenly, a killer whale had acquired human characteristics - a name, a personality - and was no longer thought of as a dangerous creature. The crowds flocked to Pier 56 to watch Namu and his trainer, Ted Griffin, to watch Griffin ride on the whale, to watch Griffin get the whale to jump on command.

Tell me one story that'd explain why you loved Namu so much, why you formed such a bond with the whale, I ask Griffin. He tells me.

"Sometimes I'd be in the water for eight hours. I'd be freezing, hardly able to move, hardly able to raise my arms. And I'm trying to swim back, but the whale won't let me," Griffin says.

"It dives right under me, traps me right against the dorsal fin, takes me out to the middle of the lagoon. Then he stops. He never goes faster than I can hang on. When he goes under water, he knows I can only hold my breath for so long. He goes right back to the top so I can breathe. He won't let me go, won't let me go back to the dock. How do you describe that emotion to somebody, that you know this whale better than you know yourself?"

Griffin tells me about learning to vocalize whale sounds, trying to talk to Namu, and having Namu respond. He tells me about having a researcher listen to the conversations, and the researcher explaining that, actually, it wasn't Griffin that had learned to talk whale talk. Namu had listened to Griffin's efforts, and was mimicking the human's sounds.

He asks me, can you understand how you can't help but develop this bond? Namu lived for a year in captivity. Bacteria had multiplied in his digestive tract, the toxins affecting his nervous system, and he drowned. Griffin was never the same.

You learn a bit more about the whale hunter, and it's not so easy to demonize him.

Dr. William Champion, a plastic surgeon who also has a degree in fisheries, has known Griffin for 30 years.

"People think of Ted as a crass commercial catcher," Champion tells me. "But if you think about it, the whales he caught served more to educate people about whales than any amount of work that has been done. He was like a zoo keeper. And except for the capturing part, all those tour boats you see now around the whales, aren't they preying on them, too?"

How do you feel, Ted?

He tells me about watching the tour boats at Dyes Inlet, watching the tourists and the guides. "Those people, they think somehow they're different than me," he says. "I don't think so."

So, to answer the question: No, Ted Griffin makes no apologies.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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