Cathy Denny stands in Oak Bay Marina overlooking the dock where Sealand ran from 1969 to 1992. Denny worked there, off and on, from 1972 until 1986. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)

Sealand was much more than killer whales, says ex-employee

Former Sealasd trainer revisits Sealand of the Pacific in talk

For 23 years Sealand of the Pacific was a popular attraction in Oak Bay Marina and played a big part of Greater Victoria’s tourism draw.

During that period, 1969 to 1992, Sealand was most famous for its killer whales and the controversy of whales in captivity, including the 1991 death of trainer Keltie Byrne in the whale tank. There was also the rescue of injured orca calf Miracle, from the waters off Nanaimo, in 1977, followed by its tragic 1983 death. She was found tangled in fish nets of the whale tank (Miracle was first rehabilitated in the Oak Bay Beach Hotel pool before relocating to Sealand).

While it seems this way now, Sealand wasn’t all whales and controversy. Much of that is due to the Blackfish effect, says former Sealand animal trainer Cathy Denny, who is hosting a sold-out Oak Bay local history talk on Wednesday at Oak Bay library. Denny will focus on the entirety of what Sealand accomplished, while acknowledging the role it played in humanity’s understanding of killer whales.

READ MORE: From killer to orca, UVic prof writes on society’s changing relationship with whales

“Do I think killer whales, or whales, should be in captivity, absolutely not,” said Denny, who worked at Sealand off and on from 1972 to 1986, and who still lives on Beach Drive near the marina. “But there was a lot that went on at Sealand besides the whale program, and Sealand did play an important role in our [human] understanding of killer whales.”

It was only a few decades ago a machine gun was mounted on the shores of the Johnstone Strait to massacre orcas in their habitual run along the narrow channel on the north end of Vancouver Island.

“We didn’t know anything about them,” Denny said.

Part of Sealand’s controversial reputation that exists today is sparked by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which captures the story of Tilikum and advocates for the release of all orca and whales remaining in captivity. Captured off Iceland in 1983, Tilikum, lived with Nootka IV and Haida II at Sealand, and the actions of the three led to Byrne’s death. Tilikum’s individual actions then led to two more human deaths in Orlando, Fla.

Watching Blackfish was hard for Denny, who is still in touch with other former employers of Sealand.

Nowadays Denny is a regular volunteer with Oak Bay Archives, where a box of news clippings, photos, and other Sealand memorabilia is on hand for visitors to see.

Denny started in the gift shop of Sealand in 1972 and worked her way up and played a role in Sealand’s overlooked research and its rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals.

“I worked with the birds, we successfully bred tufted puffins,” Denny said.

And there were countless animals rescued and released, she added.

“People would walk down the ramp with an injured [marine] animal in a box,” Denny said. “People would tow a seal in that was still attached to their fishing line, because they bit on a fish that had already been hooked, and now the hook was inside the seal.”

Denny also worked as a seal trainer. In 1980, while newly married, she moved to Vancouver and took a position at the aquarium. The head trainer at the time, however, forbid women to act as animal trainers because women are too emotionally attached, Denny recalled. Instead she worked in the education program and would introduce reptiles, such as boa constrictors and corn snakes, to children. When she returned, she worked part time with Sealand, designing signs and promotional material.

The sold-out Sealand talk is Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 2 p.m. in the Oak Bay library, and is part of the ongoing series put on by Oak Bay Archives and the library.

reporter@oakbaynews.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Food safety a good practice amid COVID-19 concerns

BC Centre for Disease Control offers useful food safe information for households

Sidney’s top emergency official says he is not aware of any COVID-19 cases in the community

The public Sunday also heard of future plans to help local businesses through tax deferments

COVID-19: Victoria plumbing company dedicates van for grocery delivery

The Super Plumber uses van to pick up groceries for those in need during COVID-19 pandemic

Digitization of Peninsula News Review by Sidney Museum and Archives preserves historical legacy

Searchable database will ease research and preserve integrity of records

COVID-19: A message from the publisher

We will be making some changes to our print editions during these unprecedented times

Evening world update: U.S. restrictions extended 30 days; NY deaths near 1,000

Comprehensive world update, with the latest developments in the COVID-19 crisis

‘It’s up to us: Recently-returned B.C. couple urges Canadians to take COVID-19 seriously

Garrett Kucher and Tory Apostoliuk make it home after almost a week of lockdown in Spain

‘Nothing concrete’: Tenants, landlords lack details after B.C. unveils COVID-19 rental aid

Single mom in Golden says she’s already going to the food bank after being laid off

Canada will make sure masks sent by China meet quality standards: Trudeau

Chinese Embassy tweeted that China was sending 30,000 medical masks along with gowns, gloves and goggles

B.C. issues guidelines about distancing, reusable bags to grocery stores amid COVID-19

Hand sanitizer and markers to keep lines two metres are apart are needed, province says

No plans to call in military right now to enforce COVID-19 quarantine: Trudeau

Trudeau unveils $7.5M for Kids Help Phone, $9M for vulnerable seniors amid COVID-19

QUIZ: How much do you know about the Olympics?

Put your knowledge to the test with these 12 questions

Most Read