SEATTLE — He saw the orca looming, so close, in the sea pen hastily welded together for the more-than-400-mile tow to Seattle.

“I dive down and, oh God, there is this shadow four feet away, looking at me,” said Ted Griffin, remembering his first moments with Namu, soon to become the world’s first performing captive killer whale.

Then he heard it: A loud squeak.

“I think it is the whale, so I go ‘EEEE’ and within half a second, the whale squeaks,” Griffin said, eyes still wide with the memory. “My God, I am crying, I can barely keep my mask on. It is indescribable. What has happened is that all those years I am wanting an animal to say ‘hello,’ and one has. I am thunderstruck.”

Word of Namu – named for the remote British Columbia village where he was accidentally caught in a fishermen’s net – quickly spread. Thousands of onlookers backed up for miles on and near Deception Pass Bridge hoping to catch a glimpse when Namu’s Navy, as the orca’s entourage of onlookers, press and promoters was called, passed beneath.

Arriving in Seattle on July 28, 1965, Griffin was given a hero’s welcome and a key to the city.

In the weeks to come, Namu fever stoked an international craze for killer whales to put on exhibit all over the nation and the world.

For more than a decade, Puget Sound was the primary source of supply.

By 1976 some 270 orcas were captured – many multiple times – in the Salish Sea, the transboundary waters between the U.S. and Canada, according to historian Jason Colby at the University of Victoria. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50, mostly Puget Sound’s critically endangered southern residents, were kept for captive display. All are dead by now but one.

Despite it all, the southern residents battled their way back to a population of 98 by 2005, only to be hammered once again by an assault of overfishing, development, pollution, habitat degradation and climate change.

Mark Overland, of Gig Harbor, remembers watching the orca captures that unfolded before his eyes, and going to court to stop them. Now the region’s burgeoning growth and development ever since threaten the orcas in ways just as real as a harpoon.

“We saved them, but for what?” Overland said.

It was actually the capture era that for the first time enabled humans to understand the complex intelligence of an animal that went in a generation from reviled to revered, and finally, protected. A look back at that period is a reminder of how the region’s special relationship with the orca evolved.

Namu and Griffin started it all: the orca and orca catcher who would change the world.

AN INTENSELY VIOLENT HISTORY

For thousands of years, the native people of the Northwest have held orcas in high esteem, believing them to be reincarnated chiefs and respected family members. But to non-Indian newcomers to the region, particularly salmon fishermen who saw the whales as competition, orcas were widely regarded as vermin, vicious killers to be at best avoided, and whenever possible, exterminated.

Ben Helle, archivist at the Washington State Archives in Olympia, needs only one search word in an online database of old newspapers to easily find examples of dread and mutilation: “blackfish.” Such as the front-page story in The Olympian Daily Recorder on Nov. 8, 1910, cheering the bravery of two teenage boys for cornering a young orca trapped in shallow water, shooting its eyes out and cutting it apart with a knife. It took the young whale three hours to die from uncounted plugs from the boys’ .22-caliber rifle and knife slashes to its throat.

The U.S. Navy used the whales for target practice in Icelandic waters, as historian Colby recounts in his book, “Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator.”

In the Northwest, the carnage was wholly embraced by state and federal agencies. Until the early 1960s, the state of Washington paid a bounty on every harbor-seal nose mailed to Olympia, and federal researchers routinely harpooned killer whales to cut them open to learn what they were eating.

So when Griffin turned up with Namu, it was a shock that he took the whale alive, and wanted to. He was just getting started.

‘THE WHALE AS A COMPANION’

Awkward and struggling in school, Griffin from his earliest days found refuge and delight in animals. He built an 8,000-gallon fish tank behind his family’s Bellevue home. He was scuba diving with rudimentary equipment before he was driving.

In 1962, Griffin opened his aquarium – no relation to the Seattle Aquarium of today – on the downtown waterfront, hoping to capitalize on the upcoming World’s Fair. A formidable collector of marine life for his attractions, he became obsessed with a personal quest for the ultimate live specimen: a killer whale.

When Griffin got a telephone call from fishermen in Canada that they had two whales caught in an abandoned net, he quickly raised $8,000 to buy one (the other had escaped).

Griffin, now 83, still quickens with excitement retelling his race by seaplane to British Columbia to get the whale, a backpack full of cash slung over his shoulder. His quest for the killer whale was always about more than collecting a moneymaking attraction, Griffin said. He wanted to know the ocean’s feared and even reviled predator for himself.

“The world is confused about the whale,” Griffin said, recalling the time when orcas, so beloved today, were detested. “To me, he is just another pet, somebody to make friends with. In my mind, I had already accepted the whale as a companion. And a friend.”

Before long, Griffin was inside the net with the ocean’s top predator, touching Namu on his face, then his blowhole. He discovered the whale liked his skin scratched with a brush – belly, back, everywhere.

They squeaked back and forth, the whale adjusting his tone to match Griffin’s. Within a month, Griffin made history, becoming the first human ever known to ride a killer whale. Namu, Griffin said, quickly figured out how long Griffin could hold his breath underwater and timed his dives accordingly.

Visitors and the press were crazy for the story of Griffin and Namu. National Geographic published a photo of Griffin opening the whale’s jaws that Griffin keeps in a frame on the hearth of his home today.

Hollywood came calling and made the feature film “Namu the Killer Whale,” filmed at Rich Cove near Bremerton. In the netted-off cove, the two spent day after day together.

Sometimes, Namu would even hold him close in his pectoral fins.

“Namu holds me hostage for his pleasure, as I have held him captive for mine,” Griffin wrote in his autobiography, “Namu, Quest for the Killer Whale.”

It was all over in less than a year.

Namu died a terrible death the summer after he was captured from a massive bacterial infection caused by the raw sewage polluting Elliott Bay.

Griffin, blaming himself, was inconsolable. But by then the world was killer-whale crazy, with orders for live orcas streaming in to Griffin’s business, Namu Inc., from aquariums around the world. But for Griffin, with Namu gone, whale catching became just what he would call The Business.

CAPTURES TAKE A DARK TURN

It was August 1970, and Griffin had far more whales behind nets than he had ever dealt with, or intended to catch. It was a superpod: a gathering of 90 to 100 orcas – possibly the entire southern population – surging and leaping behind nets at Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove.

Alarmed, Griffin knew he had more on his hands than he could safely handle, for either his divers or the whales. He ordered most of them freed.

With some 40 whales still captive, Griffin set about the work of sorting the ones to keep and ones to set loose. Cries from the orca families as they were separated still haunt the memories of locals, and even those participating in the capture.

Up until then, the captures were covered in The Seattle Times and other media like sporting events whenever Griffin took to the skies in a helicopter, scouting for whales. But this capture during the height of tourist season on Whidbey Island was different. Up close and personal, the capture was harrowing to those who had never seen or heard such a thing before.

Opponents seeking to foil the hunt cut one of the Penn Cove nets in the night – resulting in even more tragedy. Griffin heard a change in the orcas’ breathing and saw that some of the lights on the cork line of the net had dipped below the water.

He awakened his divers and sent them to search the nets. They found four baby orcas tangled in the drifting net and drowned. Goldsberry suggested they tie anchors to the orcas’ tails to sink the babies out of sight.

They slit the bellies to allow gases to escape so the carcasses would not float, tied anchors to the orcas and sank them. Yet another orca, an adult female, would be killed in the hunt before it was all over, bringing the death toll to five.

The captors did not count on one of the anchored corpses washing ashore, then eventually three more, dragged from the bottom by a fisherman. The public regard in which Griffin and his capture team were held took a dark turn.

THE LAST ORCA HUNT IN AMERICA

It wasn’t long before the state of Washington, in the public outcry following the Penn Cove capture, in 1971 set itself up in the whale-hunting business, setting limits on size, and charging permit fees of $1,000 per whale.

Griffin – by then his life, his marriage and his finances in ruins – had quit the whale-catching business for good in 1972, and the company was eventually sold to SeaWorld.

A 1976 hunt for SeaWorld in Budd Inlet was particularly violent and would prove historic. Objections by state officials, legal wrangling and widespread protests followed.

SeaWorld, in an settlement agreement, vowed never again to hunt killer whales in Washington waters. The orca hunt in Budd Inlet was the last in America.

Today, only one Puget Sound whale still survives from the capture era: Tokitae, or Lolita, held 48 years at the Miami Seaquarium. A few years ago, Griffin visited.

Seeing her, he said, he had no regrets. Not about her. Not about any of it.

“I wanted people to see the whale the way I see the whale,” Griffin said. “They are shooting at seals, anything that pops up in the water. I am saying, ‘What are you doing? There is something behind that.’

“I see it as saving the whale from all this mischief, all these bad thoughts. How can I get the public to understand that this is not what they think it is?” Griffin didn’t foresee what that new understanding would mean for himself, as he became the world’s most famous whale catcher.

But for Lolita, the capture era still goes on, despite attempts to free her. The Lummi Nation is seeking to retire her to a netted cove where she could be cared for. The Miami Seaquarium has refused, saying she is better off at the Seaquarium than at home in hostile waters, where her relatives struggle to survive.

Freeing her is about so much more than saving one whale, said Lummi Nation Chairman Jay Julius. It is about finally setting right the relationship not only with the orca, but with Puget Sound.