Find of the Month

May 2018 - A "whale bathtub" at Seattle Center

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In January 1966, the Mayor, City Council President, and the owner of a private aquarium issued a joint press release announcing plans for a "marine park" to be built in the northwest corner of the Seattle Center campus. The park was to include "a whale and dolphin pool, seal and sea lion show tank, seal feeding pool and underground octopus grotto," and was meant to be a new home for Namu, an orca that was housed on the waterfront at that time.

While some citizens wrote to the mayor in support of the proposal, the idea also elicited criticism on many fronts, including:  

  • The need to pipe in salt water to the location, whereas the waterfront had more space and was a more natural place for a whale.
  • The "undignified" nature of whale and dolphin shows within shouting distance of the opera house and other cultural facilities. One writer noted that Seattle Center was meant to be "a cultural center, not a honky-tonk center." Another wrote that although many people were interested in a marine show, "many people are interested as well in go-go dancers, gambling, and vice of all sorts," but that should not determine City policy. KING Broadcasting released an editorial saying that "a whale bathtub and a feeding pond for seals" was not compatible with the overall goals of Seattle Center.
  • Objections to a privately financed attraction on the still-evolving civic campus, with citizens upset that aquarium owner Ted Griffin would be profiting off the public cultural space.
  • The "unavoidable stench" of "fish-eating mammals in a confined area" would limit enjoyment of other attractions at the Center, including restaurants.
  • Preferences for a competing proposal for a teen recreation center on the campus (although one dissenter wrote, "Never, never let the youth get in there - unless you put them in a distant corner with a 12 foot fence").

Namu's welfare was brought up by fewer people than one might think, but several did say he would be happier on the waterfront than in a pool. One child wrote that Namu "wouldn't feel so cooped up" if he stayed in the Sound. A letter from the Seattle Garden Club pointed out that "poor Namu's future is already short," and noted that by the time the park was ready to receive the whale, "the issue may very literally be dead."

The original construction timeline was quite speedy, with plans to have the attraction at Seattle Center fully operational by June of that same year. However, aquarium owner Griffin notified the City in late February that the architects believed opening by early summer was unrealistic, so "we therefore request permission to withdraw our petition and re-submit it at a later date." The project postponement turned out to be a lucky development, and the Garden Club turned out to be prescient. Namu died in his pen at the waterfront aquarium that July, after just over a year in captivity.