The Story of Keiko, the First Captive Orca Returned to the Wild
Some critics say Keiko’s release back to the wild was a failure, but many experts disagree.
Do you remember the film Free Willy? It tells the story of a boy who befriends a killer whale named Willy and helps him return to the ocean after living an inhumane life in captivity. The movie was widely successful, bringing in $154 million dollars at the box office and inspiring a generation of young animal rights activists. It also resulted in the real-life story of Keiko, the 15-year-old orca who portrayed Willy and became the first captive orca ever returned to the wild.
Keiko was captured from Iceland in 1979 when he was two years old. He was transferred to Marineland in Ontario, Canada before being sold to Reino Aventura in Mexico City, Mexico in 1985. In Mexico, Keiko routinely performed shows for the public and lived in a tank that was warm, chlorinated with artificial saltwater, and meant for dolphins. Around this time, Warner Brothers “hired” Keiko as the star in Free Willy and began filming in 1992.
Free Willy was a hit, but Keiko’s health was deteriorating. He developed stomach ulcers, skin warts, and was severely underweight. At the end of the film, viewers were given a toll-free phone number to call to help save whales from commercial whaling, but over 300,000 people called asking for Keiko’s release instead.
Warner Brothers and Reino Aventura agreed to retire Keiko in response to this outcry. They consulted with Ken Balcomb, the founder and director of the Whale Research Center, to begin planning for Keiko's release in Iceland. To cover the costs, billionaires Craig and Wendy McKaw donated $2 million to create the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. Without their help, Keiko would not have been able to leave Mexico.
Keiko arrived at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996 to begin repatriation. He began eating live fish, lived in an enclosure with seawater, and gained 2,000 pounds. During this time, over 1 million people came to see Keiko. Seeing the flow of revenue, the aquarium changed its mind and didn’t want to give up Keiko. After some back and forth, Keiko was eventually relinquished and flown to Iceland in 1998.
Keiko lived in a seapen in Klettsvik Bay near Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. He learned how to catch live fish and was given the opportunity to leave his pen on “ocean walks.” Researchers attempted to find information on his family from acoustic and genetic studies but were unsuccessful. Over the next three years, Keiko was seen catching live fish and interacting with other killer whales, but interactions didn’t last long.
In 2002, Craig and Wendy McKaw made a final donation of $800,000 and backed out of the Free Keiko Foundation. The non-profit organization, the Humane Society, took over the project and introduced a “tough love” protocol for Keiko. They stopped talking to him and didn’t make any eye contact in an attempt to make him independent. This didn’t work, and it sadly ended up confusing him.
In July of 2002, Keiko unexpectedly took off and wasn’t seen for almost two months. He was later found in Norway after traveling over 800 miles. When people saw Keiko (recognizable by his collapsed dorsal fin), he quickly reverted back to his old ways and sought human contact. It was soon realized that it would be impossible to reintegrate Keiko into the wild because he was too acclimated to humans. As told in Bonnie Swift’s Tokitae podcast, it was clear that, given the chance, Keiko would choose humans over whales.
In December of 2003, Keiko died of pneumonia.
Throughout Keiko’s journey, controversy surrounded whether it was ethical to release him back to the wild, given his life in captivity. After Keiko’s death, the NY Times called the project “a bust,” and many critics said it was a failure because Keiko never reintegrated with wild whales.
But many others say it was a success. The Huffington Post called it "a phenomenal success ... giving him years of health and freedom.” Keiko lived five years in his native waters as opposed to staying in a tiny tank in Mexico, where he was visibly dying. Although he didn’t reintegrate with other orcas, he had freedom and had his basic survival needs met.
“We took the hardest candidate and took him from near death in Mexico to swimming with wild whales in Norway. Keiko had five years with the sights and sounds of natural seawater. I think it was a great success in terms of Keiko, his well-being, and the whole world that wanted to do the right thing.”
- David Phillips, Executive Director of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation
At World Animal Protection, we are working to make this the last generation of dolphins in captivity (don’t forget, killer whales are the largest dolphin species!). We believe in seeing dolphins in the wild, where they belong, and not in captive environments where they’re unable to live natural lives. When possible, we advocate for captive dolphins to be released to seaside sanctuaries, where they can live the rest of their lives in natural environments and under human care. Through public education, corporate engagement, and the development of responsible alternatives, we are working towards a world where dolphins and other animals live free from suffering.
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