Sea World contractor Don Goldsberry made a huge tactical error on a Sunday afternoon in March 1976.
He herded a family of transient killer whales into Budd Inlet with airplanes, power boats and underwater explosives dropped in the shadow of the state Capitol and not far from The Evergreen State College, which was hosting whale scientists and biologists at the first-ever International Orca Symposium.
His high-powered pursuit also occurred right in front of former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who was sailing in lower Budd Inlet with his wife and two other couples.
The Munro party didn’t like what they heard or saw as Goldsberry corraled six of the orcas in a net. Killer whales on each side of the net, near Athens Beach, cried out to each other in distress. They were victims of a federal permit that allowed Goldsberry to capture orcas and sell them into captivity so they could be trained to perform tricks for paying customers at marine parks and aquariums.
“We thought what they were doing was awful, whether it was legal or not,” Munro, then a young aide to Gov. Dan Evans, recalled the other day.
Memories of the “Budd Inlet Six” came flooding back as the Olympia Film Society prepares for an extended showing of the film documentary “Blackfish” beginning Sept. 13 at the Capitol Theater in downtown Olympia.
The film casts a harsh and haunting light on the controversial practice of capturing orcas and placing them in captivity. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film lets former Sea World trainers, scientists and others tell the story of Tilikum, the killer whale captured off the coast of Iceland 30 years ago. He’s lived in cramped and isolated quarters much of his life and is responsible for the deaths of two whale trainers and a foolhardy thrill-seeker who, after hours, jumped in a pool with the bull whale at a Sea World marine park in Orlando, Fla.
The link between Olympia and the critically acclaimed documentary is a strong one. The capture of six orcas in lower Budd Inlet triggered citizen outrage and a successful legal challenge orchestrated by Munro with plenty of help from several state assistant attorneys general supported by then-Attorney General Slade Gorton and Evans.
South Sound resident Wayne Williams, one of the assistant attorneys general who worked on the case, remembers burning the midnight oil, preparing a legal case to free the whales, aided by some of the whale scientists in town for the symposium. Their argument: The capture represented cruel and inhumane treatment of the ocras.
“We attorneys didn’t know anything about whales, but it was great fun — a good cause,” Williams remembered.
Early in the proceedings, the legal team assembled at Munro’s request got a federal judge to sign papers ordering Goldsberry to free the whales.
“We served the papers on Goldsberry on his tugboat in Budd Inlet,” Munro said. “He wasn’t too happy, but he did offer us coffee.”
Goldsberry also quickly appealed the judge’s order, which led to the court hearing in Seattle. During a break in the proceedings, Gorton persuaded SeaWorld to free all the killer whales — some had already escaped the nets in Budd Inlet — and cease their orca capture activities in state waters — forever.
In the other Washington, the “Budd Inlet Six” grabbed the attention of powerful U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash. “Apparently this man has a valid permit,” Magnuson said at the time. “But there ain’t gonna be any more. This is the end. If I have my way, this is the end.”
True to his word “Maggie” introduced and helped pass federal legislation to ban the capture of orcas in all U.S. waters.
“None of us had any idea at the time that we were changing public policy in America toward killer whales,” Munro said.
Unfortunately, those responsible for supplying marine parks with captive killer whales just moved their operations elsewhere, including Iceland and Finland.
Today, there are still 45 killer whales in captivity, highly intelligent, long-lived members of the dolphin family. Thirteen of them were separated from their families in the wild. The other 32 were born into captivity.
Dozens of others have died, either in captivity or during attempts to capture them. The orca-taking activities of the 1960s and 1970s in Puget Sound were a key contributing factor to population losses suffered by the southern resident J, K and L pods that typically spend summer months in north Puget Sound. The southern residents were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act list in 2005, a listing reaffirmed by the federal government this summer.
I suspect seeing “Blackfish” will be a gut-wrenching experience. But it can’t be any more disturbing than listening to the cries of the “Budd Inlet Six” and their family members as I stood on the shores of Budd Inlet all those years ago, a TESC student and Cooper Point Journal reporter assigned to cover the symposium and the ill-fated orca capture.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org