Former staff of Sealand of the Pacific are so haunted by the drowning there in 1991, most live in a self-imposed exile from the industry.
They don’t talk about it, says Steve Huxter, a longtime Oak Bay resident who was head trainer at the Oak Bay attraction that closed in 1992.
“The end of Sealand was when we had a death here in the pool,” Huxter says, gesturing to the waters off Turkey Head. “It haunts the staff to this day.”
When Huxter moved to Greater Victoria in 1981, he got a job in the gift shop at Sealand. He soon moved to administration before transferring into animal care in 1983.
“It was really exciting. I thought it’s incredible – I’m with killer whales and sea lions and seals.” Eighteen months later he took over as lead trainer from a guy who was “old school.”
“I had no idea I’d be doing it for so long,” Huxter says of the job he held until Sealand closed.
Training at the time was punishment based, and didn’t sit well with Huxter.
“It didn’t seem to make sense but it was all I knew,” he says. A tight bond formed between the young man and the highly intelligent and emotional killer whales.
“We loved all three of them,” says Huxter. But there was something special about Tilikum, the massive male so eager to please and gentle, yet full of fun.
Huxter was sent to a week-long International Marine Animal Trainers Association conference where he filled pages and pages with notes and ideas of how things should be done. “I met the right people and brought the information back to say, ‘we need to change.’”
Facing resistance, he and a contractor implemented changes.
Relationships in the pools got better too, the female orcas stopped bullying Tilikum to the point that both wound up giving birth at Sealand – a major coup for the time.
But before the births, came Keltie Byrne.
Huxter remembers the day the young trainer died. He wasn’t at work, but having coffee with a coworker when his pager sounded.
The trainers and animals had an amazing show that day, he recalls. The orcas were fantastic and it was customary after a particularly good show to reward the whales with an energetic play session. When that ended and staffers were walking the edge of the pool to leave, 21-year-old Byrne lost her footing, slipped, then clung to the side.
A whale grabbed her leg and the strong, competitive swimmer was no match for its force.
“They got super, super excited,” says Huxter.
In the frenzy, they drowned Byrne.
“That really took the wind out of (then owner) Bob (Wright’s) sails for the business. All those (aquariums) doing really well had trainers in the water. We took a look at SeaWorld, the absolute best in the world, and they were having accidents. Bob said no way.”
Wright, who built Sealand in Oak Bay in 1980, told the Oak Bay News in 2011 he remembered Byrne as “a beautiful young lady.” He died in 2013, but never professed regret over opening Sealand of the Pacific.
“When I started it the Canadian government was sending out these fisheries guys with machine guns to Estevan Point, north of Campbell River, to kill the killer whales coming down because the commercial fisheries said they were wrecking their nets. I was going snake over that,” he said in 2011.
Wright’s hope was bringing orcas to the public would educate them and stop the killing.
Sealand sold the orcas to SeaWorld and by 1992 the place shuttered for good.
“I hid away from it and wanted nothing to do with the industry,” Huxter says.
“Oak Bay and Victoria should be pretty proud,” he adds. After Sealand closed, Oak Bay, then Victoria put bylaws in place to forbid animal acts within their boundaries. “We’re one of the few cities in the world to have done that.”
It would be two decades before Huxter became a vocal advocate to end keeping marine wildlife in captivity.
“I woke up this morning to 320 emails,” Huxter says on a sunny March 17 afternoon – the day SeaWorld announced the end of its orca breeding program.
No longer uncertain, his objection to captivity was renewed by SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010. Witnesses left no doubt Tilikum was directly involved. Contacted by media at the time, Huxter shared his disbelief that Tilikum was capable of killing.
“I said, I can’t imagine Tilikum doing something like that, it was brutally aggressive. It was not the Tilikum I knew,” he says.
When he was interviewed for the 2013 film Blackfish – and heard Tilikum was bullied, stressed and bored at SeaWorld – Huxter started connecting to that world again. He talked to trainers, academics and media. He wrote a blog.
“It helped me come to terms with, I’ll say misdeeds of my past,” he says. Huxter long had doubts about keeping animals in captivity, including seals, sea lions and orcas, well before the death that marked the end of Sealand. He learned decades later, he wasn’t alone.
“If I’m not doing it (caring for the animals), who else is going to do it? It could be somebody who doesn’t care as much has I do,” he says. “We all fell into that same trap.”
In early March SeaWorld Orlando announced that Tilikum was lethargic due to a suspected bacteria lung infection.
“Our teams are treating him with care and medication for what we believe is a bacterial infection in his lungs. However, the suspected bacteria is very resistant to treatment and a cure for his illness has not been found,” said a SeaWorld statement.
At around 35, Tilikum could be at the end of his lifespan naturally anyway, though they live in the wild to age 60 and there’s a famed female celebrating more than a century in the waters off Vancouver Island. “(His lifespan) certainly has been shortened by captivity, no doubt,” says Steve Huxter.
In a rollercoaster of concern, Huxter noted that the loss of appetite last week that could spell the end, but later that day learned Tilikum was eating a bit, therefore getting meds.
“Usually when they stop eating it’s within a few days they pass away,” Huxter says, recalling Sealand’s original Haida. The orca died of a lung infection within a week of detection and only a few scant days after she stopped eating.