Pier 56 Aquarium in the 1960s – Very Big Sharks and NAMU

(click to enlarge photos)

June 1962

The five photographs included here were taken from several sides of Pier 56 (excepting the north side) and on the sidewalk there, between 1962 when Ted Griffin opened his aquarium at the end of the pier and 1970 when he was getting regularly advised at the sidewalk to free his mammals.   The copy that follows is part of a considerably longer piece I have written on the history of Seattle aquariums.  It is still rough and so not yet published.  Actually it never will be “normally” published.  Instead it will be part of the longer Ivar biography I’m writing – the one that will be both read and heard on DVD to avoid the cost of pulp and waste of paper while sharing the longer story of Seattle greatest self-promoter with those who enjoy having someone read to them on and on about tricksters.

Ted Griffin must be counted among the handful of exalted characters to have worked Seattle’s waterfront.  His stage was at the end of Pier 56, and he was candid about its shortcomings. That is, Griffin’s visionary interest in his aquarium came with modesty.  ‘Someday Seattle is going to have its own Marineland.  This we hope is just a prelude.” At the start “this” was 6,000 square feet of covered space, an impressive cadre of skin-diver friends and other volunteers.  But most saliently “this” was, in the figure of Griffin, then still in his twenties, a kind of energized ego whose want of subtlety was made up for with physical courage combined with a heroic sentimentality that the ironic Ivar, who closed his aquarium nearby on Pier 54 in 1956, could only wonder at – and did.

Griffin’s Seattle Marine Aquarium opened on June 22, 1962 or in the ninth week of Century 21 and adjacent to the fair’s waterfront helicopter pad at the end of Pier 56.  The chopper noise had to have irritated the dolphins.  At 20,000 gallons Griffin’s main tank alone was much larger than all of Ivar’s combined, but most of his specimens and claims for them were the same.  Griffin noted, “Puget Sound has more beautiful marine life than anywhere else in the world – even Key West, Florida.”  But, as most locals old enough to remember the city’s Namu enthusiasm will know, what Griffin really wanted was a whale – a killer whale. In 1962 Ted Griffin was not yet publicly association with whales, although privately he pursued them both in his dreams and in speedboats.  At the opening of his aquarium the Times columnist and nostalgic humorist John Reddin noted, “Thus far the only whale is the figure on their outdoor sign.”  But Griffin and his curator Eric Friese would harvest other excitements like Homer, an octopus captured on Puget Sound, which at 88 pounds was a record-breaker for captured octopi.


July 19, 1962 (Courtesy, Seattle Public Library)

Early in 1964 when things were getting desperate his publicist learned that that there were big sharks prowling the bottom of Puget Sound.  He asked if they had teeth, and when assured that they did the press agent convinced Griffin that he should go after them.  This was a deep pursuit or not a superficial one.  The six-gill sharks were hooked with a very sturdy line that was longer than Queen Anne Hill is high.  The line was tied to a buoy and dressed with ham, raw beef, and lingcod.  For the aquarium the sharks were cash cows.  The lines were long.  (The revelation of what lurks in the basement of Elliott Bay was made, unfortunately, ten years too soon to further benefit from the release of Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws, otherwise – to use an example — even those seasoned and burly members of the West Seattle Polar Bear Club might have reconsidered their annual New Years Day plunge at Alki Beach and visited the aquarium instead.  Such fears, however, would have been highly irrational for to be in any danger of these sharks – and they still patrol the Sound – the Polar Bears, or any swimmers for that matter, would have to dive to at least 500 feet — the level at which Griffin caught his.  The beach at Alki is thankfully shallow.

Keeping the sharks alive was measurably more difficult than catching them, that is, it was impossible.  In captivity – and in daylight – the Elliot Bay leviathans lost their appetite and most importantly their motivation.  Entering the pool and the unknown armed only with his wet suit Griffith would prod and push at them to move.  He also force-fed them with mackerel.  In spite of it the sharks all soon expired and hopes of maintaining the impressive draw their exhibition engendered were lost.  Still during this brief but sensational excitement the aquarium prospered and was able to stay open after the sharks’ last roundup.


July 7, 1964  Courtesy, Seattle Public Library

But at noted it is killer whales not six-gill mud sharks with which Ted Griffin will be linked as long as men like to chase and capture things.  Rodeo style, Griffin first tried to lasso a whale by jumping on its back and throwing a net around it.  In the summer of 1965 Griffin’s whale mania was no longer a private matter.  A fisherman in whose nets a young male killer whale became entangled somehow learned of the aquarist’s quest.  Griffin rushed north to Namu, British Columbia to negotiate.  All the bidders except Griffin retreated when they reflected on what it might take to move the whale.  When, as Griffin retells it, “I was the only one left.  They cut me a deal.  They quoted me $50,000.  I agreed to pay them $8,000, which was approximately the price of the nets.”  He flew back to Seattle and collected the eight thousand from friends and businesses on the waterfront.  When he returned to Namu he carried a gunnysack filled with small donated bills amounting to the eight Gs.  Griffin named the whale for the place, and the fame of Namu began the moment it set off on its 19-day and 450-mile odyssey to Seattle accompanied by a strange flotilla of advertising subsidized Argonauts, featuring celebrities and representatives of the competing media like Robert Hardwick of KVI-AM radio and Emmett Watson then of the Post-Intelligencer.  The floating pen that Griffin and his new partner Don Goldsberry fashioned from oil drums and steel lines became a kind of bandwagon as Griffin’s list of volunteers – including, in absentia, Ivar — swelled.  Griffin asked Ivar to pay for bringing the whale back.  Ivar countered with an offer to feed the often soaked swashbucklers and their hounds as well as send Claude Sedenquist, his head chef, along to do the cooking.  The reluctant chef’s recollections of the trip are worth introducing.


Namu in his tank was the water end of Pier 56.

“Ivar told me ‘Pack up a bag, you’ve got to go pick up a whale.  You’re going north with Watson to bring back Namu.’ I objected.  ‘Ivar we have got the Captain’s Table to open.’  Ivar answered, ‘No you have got to go.  After all when you return you can learn from someone else’s mistakes at the Table.’  So I obeyed and Ivar paid for all the food and fuel.”  But not the nets.

We will probably continue this story here later on.  As noted it is part of a work-long-in-progress on an Ivar biography called “Keep Clam.”  Other roughs from that work have been give rough premiers here and can be found in our earliest archives -whenever we manage to rescue them from what we are told is a temporary digital disappearance.


Whale sidewalk protest in front of Pier 56 on June 33, 1970.  Photo by Frank Shaw.

15 thoughts on “Pier 56 Aquarium in the 1960s – Very Big Sharks and NAMU”

  1. before ted griffin and when ivar had his aquairuum at pier 54 hehad his seal PAT a 250 lb sea. and 10 cents you could get some herring to feed him or her [ i never did fineout] one of his best tricks was to say hello. i remember going to work at the restraunt and walking by his cage and saying good moring PAT and he would throught his back and say HEL-WOOOG IT WAS THE SAME WAY bringing namu home. i would come up deck and there he was and i would say good morning NAMU !!!!!!!!!! he didn’t say much
    then we had george gobel onboard and NAMU’S dorsal fin was getting sunburnedso george borred my tenny shoes [way to big] and smeared vaseline all over his dorsal fin

  2. As a boy, that edition of National Geographic with the article “Making Friends With A Killer Whale” was my bible! Years later, I’m working for Sea World and they are still collecting orcas from Puget Sound. Tell me, the above photo of Namu in the pier-end tank – how did they lift a 24-foot 10,000 pound orca back in 1965? See my 100th visit to Marineland of Florida on YouTube: “Greg May at Marineland”. Read about my passion for Marineland of Florida at http://www.florida-backroads-travel.com.

  3. Around 1971 or so I used to visit a dolphin he had there, a female they said was named “Raindrop” or maybe “Rainbow”–my memory gfows hazy. Do you–or does anyone–know what happened to her? I miss that lady. I used to just lie by her tank and stroke her and talk to her. She was a sweet person, and seemed to understand a good deal of my language, though hers was beyond me.

  4. To: Greg May and Starshadow

    in 1972 i volunteered at the aquarium. Raindrop was a pacific whitesided dolphin. i was alone there when she died.

    It was for me life altering. Around the same time a young
    orca was stranded near ocean shores, or Sandy? oregon. I say that because that became her name. I became her nurse
    round the clock after she was violently attacked by vandals. we developed a communication before she was taken by seaworld to miami. It was two long years before i saw her again and she knew me still very well. She died soon after i heard. would love to hear if either of you recall Sandy. Thank you. Love Kaarin

  5. I seem to be haunting your website.

    I remember both Ted and Namu well. My dad was one of the divers who helped to bring Namu to Seattle. It makes me sad, still, to see the people with protest signs about releasing Namu. They knew nothing about Orca’s or Ted Griffin. Ted loved Namu intensely and would never had done anything to harm him. Ted’s efforts helped to educate the public on Orcas and one important lesson was that Killer Whales were not really “killer whales”. When I was a child, my dad would take us to the Aquarium where were allowed to scratch his back with a rake and even walk on his back (while Dad held our hands). It was an amazing experience. I wish people would take the time to learn about things before they resort to protesting about something they don’t know or understand. Perhaps then, they might have learned why Ted was so enamored with Killer Whales. I can tell by the comments here, that the people who commented all do understand.

    Since the capture of Orcas has been outlawed, there are now dozens of boats each day searching for them and following them all over Puget Sound and the Washington coast and up into Canada. These whale watchers are now putting free whales into another form of captivity. Is this an improvement over what Ted did in bringing a whale to his aquarium. I don’t think so.

    1. I used to go there at every opportunity as a child. My mom would even drop me off and give me the entry fee. I remember that Homer the octopus used to climb out of his tank, and hang on the side or even sometimes on the floor. I remember always volunteering and feeding Namu fish at the shows. Ted brought in a young harbor seal, that I helped to get out of her kennel and hold. Gosh, I loved that aquarium.

      It inspired me to want to become a marine biologist. I took classes to become one, and realized it was not a feasible career. I graduated with a degree in biology, and worked instead as an agricultural biologist for 32 years.

      The photos bring back fond memories that shaped my future career.

    2. The whale died, so did the dolphin, seal, sharks and octopus. How can you glorify the keeping of wild marine animals in a tank or pen to make a buck? It was hardly educational. And 2 other whales were killed when Griffin tried to capture them when he thought Namu needed a mate or friend. There’s nothing sentimental or heartwarming about what happened to those animals. Griffin is why so many other whales were captured and sold as slaves to marine parks. Whale watching does not kill the whales nor put them in captivity. They are free to go where they want and live with their families in the ocean.

  6. 2013, and 1966 was a long time ago…but what an outstanding experience in my life. I was privileged to be hired by Ted Griffin to work with Namu at Smith Cove in the early part of 1966 until Namu was brought to Seattle. Then, I was given a wireless microphone and said to present demonstrations of Namu to the public…which I did many times that summer.

    I really came to love Namu with the closeness of feeding, petting, scratching his back, sides and belly. Many times I was able to get very close to Namu while feeding him with a slice of salmon. I was 21 at the time, and really enjoyed the people who came to see the show.

    At times, Namu, when demonstrating a high jump, would go back into the water without hardly a splash. Other times, however, he would come down kinda falling over so as to completely soak the ones in the way of the huge wave & spray! One incident in the evening took place with no one there, but two men and a lady who were dressed to the hilt for a night on the town. For them, I’m sure it was as memorable an evening as it was for me. When I cautioned them they’d be safer from getting wet if they went up the ramp and observed from there, they decided to take a chance and see at float level. You guessed it…it was the greatest of Namu’s jokes on the crowd…the got entirely drenched. Their reaction??? They all, after catching their breath from the cold water drench, broke out laughing, and even grateful for this fantastic memory…seeing the huge body of Namu nearly leap completely out of the water (after having carefully popped his head out of the water prior to the jump, scoped out the situation…including the three observers and the ball held out high above the water by yours truly). Then, with no time to react, they saw Namu falling toward them! You can well imagine the rest…as I see it still clearly in my minds eye.

    Thanks for the memories, Namu and Seattle

  7. I also remember Namu. I was a young teenager at the time. Namu was the epitome of strength with beauty, and at the time the largest living thing I had ever seen. Someone had put some suntan lotion on his dorsal fin if I remember right so it wouldn’t get sunburned while they figured out more permanent quarters. I remember being astonished by how much fish Namu ate every day and hoping that the public would remain sufficiently interested to pay for feeding him.

    In all the years since I have never wearied or become bored watching orca or dolphin. It is evident they are watching *me*.

  8. I grew up in Seattle and remember going to the aquarium and getting picked out of the audience to feed Namu a fish and getting a kiss on the cheek from him. I am now 58 and I think I was about 5 years old.

  9. I spent my first year of college shuttling between the old Summit School and the former Broadway High School in 1967-68 at then new Seattle Community College and remember cutting class one day with some friends there and going to the waterfront one day. We strolled to the back of the aquarium and right up to Namu’s pool. No one was there except a couple of grade school kids who kept grabbing a four foot toothbrush and brushing Namu’s teeth with it as he rolled over. I was struck by how tiny his tank was. It’s a most poignant and painful memory to recall.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.