The dead guy was hard to get.
It was 6 a.m. Tuesday, July 6, and Sea World employees were horrified when they spotted the body of Daniel P. Dukes draped over the back of Tillikum, an 11,000-pound killer whale. An emergency worker on the scene later said it took quite some time and effort to get Dukes' body away from Tillikum. And when they did, the whale was "pissed."
Sea World has reportedly beefed up security around the whale tanks to prevent anyone else from staying in the park after hours, much less hopping the three-foot fence and diving in the 1.5 million-gallon tank where Tillikum lives. But if Dukes was out of place in the 55-degree water, some say the whale should not have even been there, either.
Tillikum arrived at Sea World in January 1992 on an emergency medical permit issued by the Department of Commerce's Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees the care and treatment of marine mammals in amusement parks and zoos.
Tillikum's export permit was unusual in three ways: First, officials scolded Sea World and Tillikum's former owners, Sealand of British Columbia, Canada, for failing to solve problems with the whale's housing and in effect forcing the "emergency"; second, they permitted Tillikum's export on the condition that Sea World not put him on "public display" without first getting a permit to do so from the Service; and third, the temporary permit provided that if a display permit was not forthcoming, Sea World would have to either return Tillikum to a park in Canada or "return and release Tillikum at the original location of capture."
This was the first time the U.S. federal government had acknowledged that return to the wild was feasible. Whale-rights activists took notice.
But the service issued a display permit for Tillikum on Oct. 7, 1992. The permit -- number 774 -- also allows the importation and display of three other killer whales from the Canadian park.
"They're supposed to be regulating this industry, but they're in bed with the industry," says Ric O'Barry, a 40-year marine mammal trainer who in 1972 dedicated his life to the release of captured dolphins back into the wild. "In 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act -- this should have protected them. But Congress gave the job to Department of Commerce."
Sea World bought Tillikum for breeding purposes; the park's supply of orcas has been limited by tightening rules that in effect forbid the capture of killer whales in the wild. The whales can live more than 50 years in the ocean, but their life span in captivity is much shorter -- often less than 10 years, according to activists. Tillikum has sired four calves so far, park officials say.
The whale was one of three responsible for the death of a trainer in Canada, which was part of the reason that park closed and sold its orcas to Sea World. Such mishaps are rare, park officials maintain, and the Dukes case is unique in the 35-year history of the park. But O'Barry says injuries of whale trainers are more common than is generally realized.
There have been at least 20 reported incidents of injury since 1986, all of them at either Sea World's San Diego park or at Sealand. Most of those came in 1987, after the San Diego park lost many of its experienced trainers. A catastrophic accident that year in which a trainer was crushed between two whales and a second in which a whale broke a female trainer's neck forced Sea World's previous corporate owner to make reforms.
O'Barry, who trained the first captive orca and many dolphins, including television's "Flipper," says the nature of the animals' captivity makes Sea World's orcas much more dangerous than they would be if they were living in the wild.
"The thing about orcas -- it's probably the only animal in the world that when they're born they will stay with their mother for their whole life time," O'Barry says. "The first thing Sea World does is separate them from their family. That obviously causes frustration.
"Then they put them in these concrete boxes."
In the world of animal science, O'Barry is on the fringes. But animal-behavior experts have begun to come around to his way of thinking, and the political controversy boiling around parks like Sea World has slackened only slightly since the 1993 release of "Free Willy" and the planned release of Keiko, the actual Willy.
O'Barry followed the news of Dukes' fate. "I think [Dukes] probably was fascinated with him," suggests O'Barry. "He went into the water; I think the whale probably pulled him down, held him underwater. I don't think they know how often we breathe."
The problem is that the whales have nothing better to do, O'Barry explains. "They're bored. We literally bore them to death. It's like you living in the bathroom for your life."