The first humans to move along this coastline and venture into the waves via cedar canoe recognized the orcas as powerful beings, not to be trifled with. And as they gathered around their fires at night, the humans wove stories of awe around these whales. Some tribes regarded orcas as the wise and protective rulers of an underwater people. Other tribes believed that when their chiefs died they could be reincarnated as orcas in undersea villages.
But all that began to change as explorers from Europe and the United States began to sail into the Salish Sea. They named the waters after white men – the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, Elliott Bay – and after planting their flags from far-off lands, they plundered this region’s natural resources.
A new ethos of human dominion prevailed. In this worldview, the orcas were called blackfish or killer whales. They were characterized as murderous monsters of the sea, and fishermen considered them a threat to their industry. Extermination campaigns were undertaken to rid the seas of this “scourge.”
It wasn’t until the 1960s that yet another point of view began to emerge. That’s when a self-styled marine impresario named Ted Griffin bought a killer whale that had gotten caught in a fishing net, towed it back to Seattle, named it Namu, and turned it into an attraction on the Seattle waterfront.
Despite the fact that the orca sickened and died in captivity a year later, the craze was on – suddenly every marine park around the world wanted to have its own Namu.
Griffin obliged and went into the whale-catching business with some partners. Over the next decade, more than 270 orcas were rounded up throughout the Salish Sea in raids that involved spotter planes, speedboats, vast nets, underwater detonations, harpoons and other brutish tactics.
In August 1970, more than 80 SRKW who were trapped in an infamous orca roundup that took place in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove. Mass panic filled the bay as the captors used explosives and prodded whales with poles to pry adult whales away from the youths they were struggling to protect. Separated from one another by nets, whales called out to one another in a piercing clamor.
Four baby whales and one adult female orca drowned during the raid. Many others were culled from the superpod and shipped off to aquariums to be trained as entertainers.
All around Penn Cove that day, there were hundreds of people witnessed the event. It was tourist season, and vacationers as well as locals who saw the spectacle and heard the panicked vocalizations of the orca were horrified and said they’d never forget it.
Apparently the SRKW have long memories, too. According to local reports, they avoided Penn Cove for decades following that raid.
Public sentiment was beginning to build against this kind of unregulated activity. In 1972, the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted, preventing the taking of any marine mammals without a permit.
But the reprieve for whales was brief. By 1974, orca captors associated with SeaWorld were back in business, thanks to an economic hardship exemption granted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
When a capture operation took place in Puget Sound’s southernmost inlet two years later, however, within view of the State Capitol, the State of Washington had had enough.
The K pod swims near the Alki Point Lighthouse in West Seattle – photo credit Mark Sears, permit 21348