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.
“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.