The morning of June 23, 1965, fisherman Robert 'Lonnie' McGarvey was chugging along in Fitzhugh Sound near the mouth of the Bella Coola River when he came upon a young killer whale trapped in a gill net that had snagged on a reef.
Back then, killer whales were mysterious creatures of the deep. Only one, Moby Doll, had ever been captured, a year earlier off Saturna Island.
Shot and harpooned by Samuel Burich, a sculptor commissioned by the Vancouver Aquarium to sculpt a whale, Moby Doll died after 87 days in a pen in the Burrard Drydock. McGarvey knew the young whale could be a valuable commodity. While he was watching, an adult whale slipped through an opening in the net trying to rescue the young one. Now there were two.
McGarvey radioed the owner of the net, Bill Lech-kobit, and they and another fisherman wrapped the whales in more netting as other members of what is now known as C1 Pod swam around them.
The men wanted $50,000 for their captives but had no takers.
The whales were eating a lot of valuable salmon, so the men let the young one go, slipping through an opening in the net and rejoining the pod.
Edward Griffin, head of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, offered $8,000 for the remaining adult and the men agreed.
They named the whale Namu, after the cannery settlement a 20-minute boat ride from where he was captured.
Griffin, with the help of McGarvey and the U.S. Coast Guard, built a steel-mesh pen and towed Namu down the coast to Seattle.
It was huge news. People lined the shore to watch the whale go by.
"He was the most famous whale in the world," said Curtis McGarvey, Lonnie's son, on the occasion of the celebration of life for Lonnie, held last Friday at the Parksville Legion. "More famous than Willie. More famous than Shamu."
Alas, Namu survived only a year in captivity, dying July 9, 1966, but he and Griffin changed the public's perception of killer whales. They were no longer seen as vicious killers even bigger and deadlier than sharks but rather as intelligent, talkative animals who seemed to like people.
Standing by a table with photos of Lonnie with his wife Penny, Lonnie as a kid, a model of his boat, a favorite Johnny Cash eight-track, an open copy of the March 1966 National Geographic article about Namu, Curtis acknowledges that what his dad did back then wouldn't be acceptable today. That said, it was what he did back then that helped make it not acceptable today.
"Since then we've learned so much about these incredible animals," he said, "and that's in part thanks to my dad."
As big a deal as all that was back then, it wasn't such a big deal at Lonnie's celebration of life.
"My dad had a life full of adventure," said Curtis.
Indeed, the 300-400 people who on Friday packed the main hall at the Branch 49 Legion, where Curtis said Lonnie was "a proud member," knew the whale story, of course, but talked of other things about the man who had lived near the Little Qualicum River for the past 20 years.
"He was a gambler, a drinker and a fighter," recalled one fellow fisherman. "This was a man who would piss you off in two minutes and laugh with you for five.
"If you needed a hand, you didn't have to ask."
Wife Penny remembered the day in 1958 when she first met Lonnie.
She was docked on a fish boat in Ocean Falls and was hopping across some boats when she saw Lonnie, "and he's looking at me and I said, 'Ooh,' and he told his crew member, 'I'm going to marry that girl,' and he did."
May 29, 1960. They celebrated their 50th at the Qualicum Beach Community Hall. One time a couple of southeast Asian fishermen, new Canadians, came into French Creek broke and with engine trouble.
Lonnie got their engine fixed, gave them a bit of cash and bought them some groceries.
"They were hurtin' and he was helpin'," recalled a friend, sounding a little like a Johnny Cash tune, "and that's Lonnie.
I'll never forget him."
/ The table of mementoes laid out at Legion 49 for fisherman Robert 'Lonnie' McGarvey.; / The March 1966 National Geographic featured an article about the capture of Namu the killer whale by West Coast fishermen Bill Lechkobit (top right) and Robert 'Lonnie' McGarvey (bottom right).; / Lonnie McGarvey and wife Penny on the occasion of their 50th anniversary, celebrated at the Qualicum Beach Community Hall, and Lonnie as a kid. Life was pretty rough and tumble on the West Coast in those days, and Lonnie fit right in.; [Brian Wilford ] / Curtis McGarvey, son of fisherman Robert 'Lonnie' McGarvey, hoists his son Dean Hennessy during the celebration of life for Lonnie at the Parksville Legion last Friday. Some 300-400 friends and family attended.;
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