Family Sacrifice: Shamu

Killer-Whale-SunsetBack in the day, pods of up to twenty orcas followed the fish runs deep into Puget Sound every year and made their way up Henderson Bay to Minter Creek. We used to watch them from the bank at Allen Point as they patrolled the creek outlet. In 1965, a flotilla of boats, probably organized by Ted Griffin, gathered at Minter to capture one of them. I don’t know how you capture an orca with a seine net, even though I watched it happen from the shore. It took hours, as I recall, but they did it. By the end there was an enclosed net with an orca in it. Gradually most of the fleet dispersed, leaving “Shamu,” as she would later be known, the lone fin surrounded by net floats in an otherwise empty bay. That’s when Shirley called Mom.

Namu, a male orca purchased from fishermen for $8,000 (enough to replace the nets he had wrecked by becoming entangled in them) had gone on display at the Seattle Aquarium. When Griffen discovered that Namu would let him ride on his back, a star was born. Namu was a hit, and just in sync with Flipper, the TV aquatic version of Lassie. capture3-1Suddenly, every large-scale aquarium wanted an orca, like zoos want a panda, an elephant, a tiger, and another big-draw animal to step up their game to the next level. Namu’s ensuing popularity ushered in a frenzy of orca captures over the next twelve years. What I was witnessing from the banks at the Point was the capture of the first orca after Namu.

But there was more going on than just pure “wowza” hidden behind a thick curtain of mumbo-jumbo about studying orca (in a tank?) and promoting awareness of wild creatures (by having them do tricks?).  Shamu (“friend of Namu” or “She-Namu) was intended to be a female companion for Namu. You couldn’t, after all, keep a big male orca in captivity alone. Like Adam, alone in the Garden of Eden, Namu needed a companion: a girlfriend, a wife, and hopefully, some day, little orcas swimming around the tank. Animals, like us, needed to be properly domesticated and given a home, and that was envisioned then as being within the well-defined confines of the 50’s family that we were pummeled with by TV shows like Leave It To Beaver.

In the beginning of the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, and civil rights movement, we needed confirmation that the old ways were not only best, but “normal” and “natural.” If we could use the nuclear family to fully domesticate killer whales, it would surely show that it was the natural order for all creatures great and small. shamu-1The disneyfication of the family would explode from the water right there before our eyes and playfully soak us with its splash. What began as an frightening eruption of power that stunned and startled us would, in the wake, be revealed to be a giant grinning and good-natured prankster, who had not only had adapted to his unnatural surroundings, but was happy and complete. It would be like watching The Sound of Music, but in the water.

And so a female had to be caught. Brian and Scott had gone off to their first day of kindergarten, and the phone rang. “The kids are gone,” Shirley said, “Let’s go fishing.” And so they did. Shirley brought the Boston Whaler over to Allen Point from Cherry Cove, and she and Mom spend better part of the day out on the water. That wasn’t a very “feminine” thing to do back then, you know. What they should have been doing was pledging the furniture and reveling in the shine.

Besides fishing, they went by the pen to look at the whale.

I’ve pondered the juxtaposition of that encounter: two human females partially freed from the daily confines of traditional motherhood and yet bordered by the realities and expectations of their roles, facing off against a young female orca who was now framed in by, and soon to be sacrificed to, those same expectations.


Namu died. Shamu eventually was “retired” when she turned on her trainer. It’s happened several times since then. Even orcas have a limit, I suppose. I’m half surprised that Mom and Shirley didn’t just head over to the Raft Island Store, top off the gas tanks, and head for Canada. You hear about that every once in a while; someone just inexplicably walks out the door one day and never comes back.

About 262 orca were captured and eleven more were killed in the process. 50 juveniles and five others were taken into captivity. Sixteen of those died within a year. Of the umpteen orca born in captivity, nearly all have died either stillborn or within a year. But Namu, Shamu, Ramu, Baby Shamu, and Grandbaby Shamu live on in the trademarked stage names of Seaworld, which is not really a world, but a stage where we project our family fantasies onto even the kingdom of the deep 20 minutes at a time up to seven times a day.


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1 Response

  1. Tim Hief says:

    Sad story about a wonderful animal. I’d rather see the civilized world develop an IMAX style zoo. That way the captives could be in our midst always.