Main Picture: Mark Berman

In our third blog on whales who’ve captured the attention of the world and the hearts of people, we take a closer look at the male orca Keiko.  

Due to his appearance in the popular 1993 film Free Willy, a huge groundswell of affection was generated for Keiko along with interest from people all over the world in his welfare and his future.  

Early life, capture and captivity 

Keiko (previously known as Siggi or Kago) was born in 1976. He was captured when approximately two years old, near Reyðarfjörður in Iceland, and sold to an aquarium in Hafnarfjörður (which also housed other orcas over the years, including Tilikum).  

In 1982, Keiko was sold to Marineland in Ontario, Canada, where he was set to work performing for the public. There are reports that he developed skin lesions, which indicated poor health, and was also bullied by older orcas. 

Three years later, he was sold to Reino Aventura theme park in Mexico City. It’s there that he was given the name ‘Keiko’, which means ‘lucky one’ in Japanese.  

Sadly, he would go on to spend 11 years of confinement in a tank designed for bottlenose dolphins, not helped by the fact that he grew considerably in size during his time there. Keiko couldn’t dive at all and when he was idly floating, his tail almost touched the bottom. While he had dolphins for company, there were no other orca at the amusement park.  

Another challenge for Keiko was the hot weather. Accustomed to the cold waters of the North Atlantic during his early years, he now had the hot Mexican sun beating down incessantly on him.  

Theme park staff filled the tank with tap water, which was chlorinated, and brought in salt to replicate the ocean water but it was all a foolhardy endeavour. The natural ocean environment could never be reproduced in an inland manmade tank.  

Keiko had a collapsed dorsal fin due to lack of mobility, being kept in tanks for close to two decades.  


Free Willy 

After several years in Reino Aventura, Keiko was chosen to perform in the film Free Willy, which tells the story of a young boy who befriends and eventually manages to release a captive orca from a marine park. The 1993 film was a box office success, earning $153 million worldwide, from a budget of $20 million.  

The film proved to be popular with children and adults alike, who connected with the inspiring story of the orca who made it back to the wild.  

But that story was at odds with what Keiko faced after the film crew left Mexico City. He was still living in exactly the same conditions at the theme park and still captive, far from being the ‘Free Willy’ of the film title. 

Keiko fans weren’t happy with his situation and started an international letter writing campaign, Free Keiko, to have him returned to the wild, preferably to his family group in Iceland.  

Earth Island Institute received more than 400,000 phone calls from people, predominantly children and their parents, calling to know what they could do for Keiko and what they could do for whales.  

Warner Bros, who had made the film, were also spurred into action to help the orca. Several organisations came together to meet with the owners of Reina Aventura to see what could be done to help Keiko.  

One possibility was to move him to another aquarium but nobody wanted to take him due to the skin disease he had developed (as it could have spread to other orcas in captivity). When the idea to return him to his native habitat began to get legs, Warner Bros approached the Earth Island Institute to serve as the orca’s custodian.  

Reino Aventura – which had reportedly paid $350,000 for Keiko – donated him to the newly founded Free Willy-Keiko Foundation which the Earth Island Institute had set up.  

Rehabilitation and Release 

The first step in the plan was to move him to a better facility while his health improved and in January 1996, he was airlifted to Oregon Coast Aquarium and homed in a new state-of-the-art tank. Some $7 million had been raised by the public to help fund the new facility.  

Keiko spent just over two years there while everything was put in place for his move back to Iceland where he’d been captured 19 years previously. It was a massive operation, given that this had never happened before – a captive orca being transported by plane back to its native habitat.  

The journey was mapped out from the West Coast of the U.S. across the Atlantic Ocean to Iceland. He weighed approximately four tonnes at the time and was transported on a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, safely contained in a specially made transfer tank onboard.   

In September 1998, with international media and millions of people following the story, Keiko arrived at Klettsvik Bay in the Vestmannaeyjar islands region.  

He was initially housed in a sea pen where he was given training designed to prepare him for his eventual release. This included how to hunt for food (though there was critical commentary that humans don’t understand complex orca feeding habits so aren’t best placed to teach them to a whale).  

Keiko also undertook supervised swims in the open ocean. Thorbjorg Valdis Kristjansdottir spent two years working with Keiko during his rehabilitation and remembers him as “as unbelievable animal. He absolutely had a definite personality. I spent a lot of time alone with him, and I talked and talked and talked to him. He would just kind of dance in the water.” 

In the summer of 2002, he was in good shape and in the best position to be freed into the open ocean. He was spotted departing Icelandic waters in early August, following some orcas. Unfortunately though, he didn’t integrate with the pod.  

His journey was tracked via a radio signal tag attached to his dorsal fin. A month later, Keiko was found in Norway’s Skalvik Fjord where he was interacting with humans 

The team looking after his welfare moved to Norway and continued to monitor him via boat-follows for the next 15 months. Although he occasionally approached groups of wild orcas, he remained at a distance from them (approximately 100-300 metres).  

While Keiko had successfully fed himself during his swim from Iceland to Norway, he later needed to be fed by the team looking after him. 

Keiko was the first (and to date only) captive orca to be fully released back into the ocean but, sadly, he did not live a long life. He died on 12 December 2003 in Taknes Bay in Norway, after becoming lethargic and despite being given antibiotic treatment.  

Pneumonia was determined as the probable cause of his premature death – he was just 27 when his life ended.  


Keiko’s Impact 

It was not the happy Hollywood ending that everyone had wished for. In the aftermath of Keiko’s death, some media outlets called his rehabilitation and release a “complete failure” because he didn’t integrate with a pod of orca and because he still had dependencies on humans (seeking them out for interactions and for food).  

It’s been pointed out though that the failure to reunite with his family unit may have been down to circumstances – they may no longer have been alive or he may have been merely passing through that part of Iceland when he was taken as a young whale. It could have been wrong place, wrong time for a family reunion to have occurred.  

In the big scheme of things, his rescue should be seen as a success. Keiko wouldn’t have lived much longer in the theme park in Mexico, with his physical and mental health continuing to deteriorate (one expert said he may only have lived for a few more months there).   

Not only did he get removed from that facility but he made it through a period of readjustment in Oregon, then moved to the sea pen in Iceland and then finally lived out his days in the ocean, back where he came from.  

Keiko’s rescue has served as a model for other cetacean rescues and as an inspiration that if enough people lobby and come together, a life beyond captivity can become a reality for whales.   

In 2013, a New York Times video, Freeing Willy, took a retrospective look at his return to the ocean. Take a look below:  

Check out previous blogs in this series

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Migaloo 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Tokitae