I cried when I saw the announcement from The Whale Sanctuary Project. Though I never met this orca, she was in my heart. I had hoped that she’d be one of the first orcas to be relocated to the sanctuary.
“The news is devastating to all of us who have been working toward the time when she could be retired to sanctuary.” -Lori Marino, President of The Whale Sanctuary Project1
Kiska’s Sad Life
MarineLand Canada announced that Kiska, the loneliest orca, died of a bacterial infection on March 9, 2023. She had been there since 1979, captured as a calf near Iceland (along with Keiko, the star of Free Willy) and taken from her family. She suffered the loss of all 5 of her own babies under MarineLand’s care. “One of them didn’t even survive long enough to be named. Orcas feel deep, complex emotions, and the bond between mother and child is so profound that it is hard to imagine the grief and trauma that Kiska would have suffered in each of her bereavements.”2
Worse, Kiska had been living alone in her small tank since 2011. Read this article about her life.
The video below shows how lonely, bored, and unstimulated she was in 2021.
UPDATE: We have more heartbreaking video of Kiska, MarineLand’s last surviving orca floating listlessly at the surface of her concrete pool. She has lived in complete isolation since 2011. Witnesses say she often calls out for other orcas. #FreeKiskapic.twitter.com/TWyw9x781B
The marine amusement park has been under investigation for animal cruelty for several years. Animal Justice, an animal advocacy and legal group in Canada, worked to help Kiska by filing legal complaints on her behalf, including when “disturbing videos were shared showing the orca floating listlessly and slamming her body against the side of her tank.”3
Animal Justice says they are devastated by her death. They are calling for renewed interest in charges against MarineLand “over the cruel and illegal living conditions that the facility forced Kiska to endure. Orcas are incredibly social animals, but Kiska had no one by her side since 2011, and suffered from agonizing loneliness as well as a lack of space and mental stimulation in her small barren tank. Under federal and provincial laws, it’s illegal to cause animals suffering and distress, which includes psychological distress stemming from boredom and isolation.”4
We Must Learn and Take Action
We have to keep trying, keep learning, and keep calling for action. Progress has been made, but we have a long way to go.
Kiska was the last orca living in captivity in Canada since the 2019 passing of Bill S-203. This law made it illegal to breed or import marine mammals into captivity. However, the whales and dolphins currently in captivity at Marineland were exempted from these laws. “Her death marks the end of legal orca captivity in the country.”5
“No other orcas [in Canada] will endure the heartbreaking suffering she faced.” -Camille Labchuk, Animal Justice6
Animal Justice plans to continue investigating MarineLand Canada and urges support for other projects. “It is heartbreaking to know that Kiska will never get to experience freedom, but we hope this tragedy spurs support for the Whale Sanctuary Project, and that other whales at MarineLand will be able to live out of the rest of their lives in a safe environment with hundreds of times more space than the tiny tanks they currently endure.”7
The Whale Sanctuary Project agrees. “The loss of Kiska will only intensify the urgency of our team to help Marineland relocate the approximately 34 belugas and five dolphins who remain there.”8 They ended their statement with this:
“Meanwhile, we can only ask that Marineland be fully transparent about the circumstances surrounding Kiska’s passing. But in the end, we know that no words can explain away a lifetime of pain and misery as experienced by a deeply intelligent, social, family-centered being who had the terrible misfortune to become known as the loneliest whale in the world.”9
Don’t give up. We can save the others.
Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.
When it was released in 1993, the huge success of the film Free Willy was unexpected. Financially, it earned $77 million ($149 million in today’s dollars) at the domestic box office and spawned sequels. More importantly, it created a movement. Some marine biologists, scientists, and animal rights activists had already been advocating for the end of captivity for cetaceans. But Free Willy brought the notion home to children’s minds.
So, what happened to the orca who starred in the film? Keiko was freed from captivity within marine amusement parks. He spent the last years of his life swimming in the open ocean. I’ve put together a short version of his story in this article. But if you want to learn more, there are books and documentaries detailing his story.
Keiko’s Capture & Sale
“Free Willy and its fantasy of an orca simply leaping over a breakwater to freedom notwithstanding, returning orcas to the wild is not a simple thing.”1
Keiko was captured as a very young whale off the coast of Iceland in the late 1970s. He was too young to be away from his mother. Sædýrasafnið, an aquarium in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland (closed in 1987), housed him and trained him to perform tricks.2 In 1982, MarineLand Canada purchased Keiko (and Kiska) from Sædýrasafnið.
MarineLand sold him in 1985 for $350,000 to Reino Aventura (now Six Flags México). This park put him in a tank designed for dolphins, so it was small and shallow. When he was at the surface, his flukes touched the bottom of the pool. His mental health suffered as his only company was sometimes a few dolphins, no other orcas. He wore his teeth down by gnawing the concrete around his tank. He was underweight and had little muscle tone from not having space to swim and dive. His physical health continually declined under their care. After all, this was an Icelandic orca living in Mexico City – an extremely different climate. A veterinarian estimated that if Keiko was kept at the Reino Aventura, he would probably die within a few months.3
A Film Project
When Warner Brothers and the producers began looking to audition killer whales for Free Willy, they ran into roadblocks. Twenty-one of the 23 orcas in the United States belonged to SeaWorld, and they declined to allow any orcas to be in any films. “No doubt th[e] villainous portrayal of marine-park owners, as well as the storyline depicting the freeing of a captive orca, had a lot to do with why, when the film’s producers first approached officials at parks such as SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, they were turned away.”4 Any marine amusement park that took on Keiko would have had the line of conversation about freeing orcas permanently opened up.
But when the producers found Keiko and Reino Aventura, which was not in great condition, they asked the owners about auditioning Keiko. Reino Aventura’s owners agreed as it was an opportunity to profit from Keiko. But they may have also hoped that this would get him into a living better situation and prevent his likely slow death. But “none of them were quite prepared for the film’s overwhelming success.”5
The Impact of Free Willy
Numerous articles and TV news stories followed the film’s success, highlighting Keiko’s poor health and living conditions. His tiny pool at Reino Aventura could not even filter out the orca’s daily waste. His skin lesions, caused by papillomavirus, were worsened by the small pool, swimming in his own waste, and from the polluted air of Mexico City.
At the end of the film, the producers had included a message directing those interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to the environmental group Earth Island Institute. The overwhelming number of calls from people and the thousands of letters from children surprised everyone. While people cared about whales, many were more interested in saving ‘Willy’ specifically. But no other park or aquarium would take him as a transfer because of fears that his virus would spread to other orcas. But it also could have been bad for public relations.6
“Warner Brothers called us and said—“Oh my god, we’re getting hundreds of calls and thousands and thousands of mailgrams and telegrams and letters from people saying—‘This whale jumped to freedom at the end of Free Willy, but what about the whale in real life?’” -David Phillips7
The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation
In 1994, David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute, with the support of the movie’s producers, formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.8 The mission was to rehabilitate and release or “free” Keiko.
The owners of Reino Aventura agreed to let Keiko go as long as the expenses of relocating and continued care of him could be met. For this, more than a million people came together. People raised money through bake sales and children collected small donations. UPS flew Keiko free of charge. Warner Brothers and New Regency, perhaps under pressure, donated a million dollars. The Humane Society of the United States donated a million. Last, a private foundation donated another million.9
“While not all captive orcas may be viable release candidates and not all captive orcas may ever be released back into the wild, we owe it to them to try and at the very least, retire them and improve their current captive conditions.” -Corrine Henn10
Relocating An Orca, Twice
“Keiko was a trailblazer for the reintroduction of marine mammals.” -Dave Phillips, Director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation11
Keiko was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium from 1996–1998. His health greatly improved and he gained over a thousand pounds. The aquarium’s attendance greatly increased. Though he was on the path to release, there was still controversy. There were some who felt he would not survive in the ocean. There was even “a conspiracy theory circulating in the most radical anti-captivity ranks that Sea World might actually be behind the free-Keiko efforts, knowing that they would fail, thus inoculating amusement parks around the world from an upwelling of liberationist sentiment.” Even in Iceland, there were entities against moving Keiko and others that saw no benefit to having Keiko in a pen in there since it would not be for tourism.12But Icelandic waters were the right area for him to go. The Icelandic government had to be convinced, as did the U.S. Congress, and eventually, they both approved the project.
In 1998, Keiko was relocated to his new sea pen in a bay in Iceland, with the help of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The costs of moving him, building the sea pen, and caring for him were astronomical. There are some who criticized the project, then and now, simply because of the high financial costs. But this was always the right thing to do for this orca. As writer Susan Orlean wrote:
“If anyone thought that the money being spent on his rehabilitation was an insane extravagance, they didn’t blame it on the whale: it wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico. It wasn’t his fault that he became a ten-thousand-pound symbol of promises kept (or not) and dreams achieved (or not) and integrity maintained (or not) and nature respected (or not). It also wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to blow a bubble-net and trap herring, and it wasn’t his fault that he’d been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they viewed him as a bit of a freak.”13
Keiko spent a couple of years learning to hunt fish and communicate with other whales, under the supervision of humans. In 2002, Keiko left his sea pen for the final time and swam to Norway, eventually settling in the Taknes fjord. While he never reconnected with his original pod, he lived for another full year before succumbing to pneumonia in December 2003. But he never completely stopped desiring human contact. His human caretakers were there until the end, as Keiko viewed them as his companions rather than other orcas. Some look back at this experiment and consider it a failure. However, it was a success story in that Keiko swam freely outside of the confines of a concrete tank for the last years of his life. He swam in the ocean for almost 5 years after more than 20 years in captivity.
“In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose14
Today, David Phillips, who organized Keiko’s rehabilitation and release, is the Treasurer of the Whale Sanctuary Project. He was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization Earth Island Institute, and he also directs the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Here is his reflection on the Keiko project:
“Most people ran for the hills and wanted nothing to do with Keiko. ‘Are you kidding? We’re going to have to try to convince the Mexican government to give us this 8000 pound orca, and then figure out a way to fly him, and build him a whole new facility for rehab, and then we’re going to have to bring him out of there and try to get him into Iceland? You’d have to be out of your mind. Who’s going to pay for all this? It’s never been done before. Maybe he’s going to die—maybe in transit. Why would the Mexicans give him to us, and why would Iceland let him come in?'”
But for Phillips, Keiko was a success story even though there are still doubters. “We didn’t get to hand pick the best candidate for release. We had Keiko. And his rescue was a big intractable problem where we had to accommodate a lot of risk, and there were going to be people who wouldn’t like what we were going to do at every stage along the way. And that’s part of the deal.”15
What They Learned From Keiko
Keiko was the first captive orca to use a sea pen for his successful rescue rehab and release effort. The obvious, most important thing they learned from Keiko was that it could be done. Captive cetaceans can be rescued, rehabilitated, and retired.
Scientists and marine biologists learned a lot from Keiko. The orca was able to regain its health in natural seawater after spending years in chemically treated water. He relearned the skills necessary to feed himself and he learned how to interact with wild orcas in his native waters. As noted by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP): “Evidence shows that keeping orcas in captivity is inhumane and shortens their lives. During the years in which Keiko was rescued, regained his health and returned to his home waters, seventeen other orcas died in captivity, along with many more captive dolphins and whales. We are proud to have given Keiko the opportunity to live out his life in his home waters.”16 At the time of his death, Keiko was the second longest-lived male orca ever held in captivity. He lived much longer than the average lifespan of male orcas held at SeaWorld.
“Keiko taught us how difficult it is to put one back.” -Charles Vinick, Webinar from The Whale Sanctuary Project17
Some say the money spent on setting Keiko free might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat. But Keiko likely would’ve died shortly after the releases of the Free Willy movies. So the money was worth saving his life. I also believe that what scientists, marine biologists, and other experts learned from Keiko’s experience helps set us up for a better future.
The Whale Sanctuary Project uses Keiko’s story to explain how captive cetaceans can be retired from marine amusement parks. They also view the orca’s journey as a learning platform. This project is made possible because of Keiko’s legacy.
In 2019, Canada banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity and outlawed breeding, trade, possession, and capture of cetaceans. The Canadian media colloquially named it the “Free Willy” bill. While the legislation does not cover cetaceans already in captivity, including Kiska at MarineLand Canada, it is apparent that Keiko’s story extends far beyond the success of Free Willy. Keiko will always be loved, cherished, and remembered. That was his superpower and it is now his legacy.
“The time has come for us to see orcas in captivity as a part of our past – not a tragic part of our future. Let’s end the show now and retire these intelligent, social, complex animals to sea pen sanctuaries.” -Jean-Michel Cousteau18
Webinar, “Reintroducing Keiko (the “Free Willy” whale) to the Wild,” Whale Sanctuary Project, August 7, 2020.
Webinar, “What Is Keiko the Orca’s Legacy?” Whale Sanctuary Project, December 18, 2020.
Article, “Truth About Killing Keiko: What SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You To Know About Freeing Killer Whales,” International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), April 7, 2015. This article reviews the book, Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons, which scientists argue is biased and not fully factual. The author helped establish Ocean Embassy, a company aimed at catching wild dolphins and selling them to aquariums all over the globe.
For as long as there have been stories and records about it, whale hunting has always been brutal, barbaric, and gory. Capturing orcas and other marine mammals for sale to aquariums and amusement parks is just as violent and brutal. Whale hunters have used explosives, helicopters, and other fear tactics to separate orcas from their pod. Many orcas have been killed accidentally in the process. Even more reprehensible was the cover-up of those deaths. Whale hunters posthumously cut open dead orcas and stuffed them with rocks to sink their bodies. Additionally, these captures in the 1960s and 1970s greatly reduced the populations of orcas, particularly the Southern Resident orcas.
At least 166 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961, and 129 of these orcas are now dead.1 Eventually, laws ended these practices and captures. But this directly led to the establishment of breeding programs at SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks.
“Most cetacean capture methods are extremely traumatizing, involving high-speed boat chases and capture teams violently wrestling animals into submission before hauling them onto a boat in a sling and then dumping them into shallow temporary holding tanks or pens.”2
The Vancouver Aquarium
In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium captured an orca named Moby Doll, a male that they first believed was female. Originally, the aquarium had no intention of capturing an orca. They actually commissioned an artist to kill an orca to use as a body model for a killer whale sculpture. However, after harpooning a young whale and then shooting it several times, the whale did not die. Instead, the orca followed its captors as if on a leash for 16 hours in order to avoid the pain of resistance with the harpoon in his back. The aquarium put Moby Doll on display for scientists and the public to view. He did not eat for 55 days. When he started eating finally, he consumed 200 pounds of fish per day. But he never fully recovered and died after 87 total days of captivity.
“Moby Doll was the first orca ever held in captivity, and his amazing qualities, seen by humans for only those hard last months of his life, started both a new appreciation for orcas and a new industry of catching and displaying the whales for entertainment.”3
The Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps captive whales. “After Moby Doll, [they] got more orcas and kept at least one in captivity until 2001, when its last orca, an Icelandic whale nicknamed ‘Bjossa,’ was shipped away to SeaWorld in San Diego, where she soon died.”4
Seattle Marine Aquarium at Pier 56
In 1965, Fishermen accidentally caught Namu the orca in their net in Canadian waters. Namu was the first captive performing killer whale. They contacted the owner of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, Ted Griffin, who bought Namu for $8,000. Griffin put him on display. “Crowds flocked to Pier 56 to watch Griffin ride the whale and to see Namu jump on command,” according to The Seattle Times.5 Downtown shops sold Namu souvenirs. There are two songs and a film about Namu.6
“Within a month, Griffin made history, becoming the first human ever known to ride a killer whale…Visitors and the press were crazy for the story of Griffin and Namu.”7
Griffin intended to capture another whale so that Namu would have a mate. Activists and scientists protested. Then two female whales died during Griffin’s effort, which exacerbated the issue. In the midst of that, Griffin received approval to build a new marine park as a new home for Namu. But the project never came to be.8
The success of the aquarium from having Namu “spark[ed] a period of orca captures in the region, when a generation of southern resident killer whales was taken and shipped to aquariums around the world.”9 Other marine amusement parks sought the financial success of having captive performing orcas. Unfortunately, it became an established practice.
“Namu fever stoked an international craze for killer whales to put on exhibit all over the nation and the world. Captors particularly targeted the young, the cheapest to ship.”10
Sadly, Namu died within one year. He drowned after he became entangled in the netting of his pen. The autopsy revealed a massive bacterial infection caused by the raw sewage polluting the bay,11 and this likely contributed to the whale’s disorientation and drowning.12
Ted Griffin continued pursuing orcas and was part of the famous Penn Cove massacre in August 1970 when four orcas were drowned in their nets. In a failed effort to cover up the deaths, Griffin ordered workers to cut the whales open and weigh them down with chains and rocks to sink them. But the corpses were caught in a fisherman’s net and hauled to shore a few months later, and news reporters captured the event. “Griffin lost the stomach for orca captures after the Penn Cove debacle and dropped out after 1972.”13
“Every one of the fifty Southern Resident whales captured by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry from the Puget Sound is now dead, with one exception…Lolita.” -David Neiwert14
The Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972
In the 1960s and early 1970s, whale captures were largely unregulated and were completely legal. Humans captured hundreds of orcas and thousands of marine mammals during those decades for all types of purposes. Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 (MMPA) in direct response to concerns about the effects of human activity on marine mammals. But at the insistence of the theme park industry, Congress gave an exemption for marine mammals in zoos and aquariums, under the facade of ‘for educational purposes.’15 Conservation was the term used to claim these exemptions.
“When drafting the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), members of the US Congress believed, or were lobbied into promoting, the long-accepted view that the public display of wildlife (at facilities such as zoos and aquaria) serves a necessary educational and conservation purpose.”16
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) granted SeaWorld an economic-hardship exemption in 1974. This allowed them to continue the practice of hunting orcas.17 All of this affected the Southern Resident populations.
NOAA grants other exceptions under the MMPA. Examples include scientific research, photography, capture, or first-time imports for public display in aquariums, or rescues.
In 1975, Washington State filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld and in 1976, closed its waters to killer whale captures, a direct reaction to the ridiculous craze for capturing them. “By 1976 some 270 orcas were captured — many multiple times — in the Salish Sea, the transboundary waters between the U.S. and Canada, according to historian Jason Colby at the University of Victoria. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50, mostly Puget Sound’s critically endangered southern residents, were kept for captive display. All are dead by now but one,” referring to Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium.18 Southern Resident orcas lost a third of their population to capture by 1975 and the ecotype has never fully recovered. “Nearly a whole generation of reproduction was represented in the whales captured and killed,” wrote David Neiwert.19 The Southern Residents were classified as endangered in 2005.
Icelandic and North Atlantic captures
Less than 8 months later, SeaWorld and other marine parks moved their capture operations to Icelandic and North Atlantic waters. SeaWorld hired Don Goldsberry, who had been a part of the Puget Sound massacre, to go to those areas.20 “Between 1976 and 1989, at least 54 orcas were captured from Icelandic waters and sold to marine parks around the world. [Seventeen] of those whales ended up at SeaWorld parks.”21 Forty-eight of these orcas have died in captivity.22 Killer whale capture in Iceland ended in 1989 (but whale hunting, in general, began again in 2003).
Tilikum was one of the wild captures from Iceland and the North Atlantic.23 Tilikum was the whale who killed his trainer in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando and may have been responsible for two other human deaths during his captive history. He passed away in 2017. Whale hunters captured Keiko, the star of Free Willy, from the same area. Kiska, whom I wrote about previously, was also captured there.
“All cetacean capture methods are invasive, stressful, and can potentially be lethal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose24
Laws prohibiting wild captures led to the establishment of captive breeding programs at marine amusement parks. Over the last 40 years, this practice has become the new standard for replenishing orca stock. “One of the keys to SeaWorld’s success was its ability to move away from controversial wild orca captures to captive births in its marine parks. The first captive birth that produced a surviving calf took place at SeaWorld Orlando in 1985. Since then, SeaWorld has relied mostly on captive breeding to stock its parks with killer whales, even mastering the art of artificial insemination.”25
Thankfully, the practice of captive breeding is now ending in the western world. But in other parts of the world, marine amusement parks are growing in popularity. This means wild captures are now on the rise in those areas. In my next article, I’ll share some of this information with you. Thanks for reading, and please share and subscribe!
Article, “A Whale of a Business: Laws, Marine Mammal Legislation,” Frontline Online, PBS, accessed March 3, 2021.
Video, “Choosing between hunting & saving whales,” CNN.com, November 18, 2014.
As far back as I can remember I’ve loved animals, and I’ve always felt the desire to protect them. I’ve never seen an orca in real life and I had always wanted to visit SeaWorld and had even hoped to take my son there one day. Over the last year, I’ve learned a lot about these amazing, majestic, intelligent, and beautiful creatures. But I also learned about the trials, dangers, and cruelty that come with having orcas in captivity. In this series, I’ll explain why I will now never be able to visit SeaWorld.
About Wild Orcas
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are perhaps the smartest species and have a higher emotional capacity than humans. Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. There are several types of orcas and they are found in all of the world’s oceans, most abundantly in colder waters like in Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska. What they eat varies by location and pod preference. They live in matrilineal pods that travel between 50 and 100 miles per day. They have complex coordinated hunting techniques, showing a high level of communication. Mothers typically have one calf about every 5 years and calves, particularly males, will stay with their mothers for life. Orcas are apex predators, meaning that there are no animals that prey upon them.
Orcas have large brains and have challenged the belief that humans are the most intelligent species. These social animals have strong bonds with each other, organize for play and hunting, and communicate in ways beyond vocalizations that humans don’t understand. They use echolocation and rely on underwater sound to feed, communicate, and navigate. Even though their vocalizations sound the same to us, each orca pod possesses a unique set of culturally transmitted and learned calls.
“Social life for killer whales…is deeper and more omnipresent than it is for humans; their identities are defined by their families and tribal connections; and their empathy is powerful enough to extend to other species. If orcas have established empathy as a distinctive evolutionary advantage, it might behoove a human race awash in war and psychopathy to pay attention.” -David Neiwert1
There are many ecotypes of orca. The Southern Resident orca, which resides in the Pacific Ocean in areas ranging from central California to southeast Alaska, is critically endangered. There are only 74 individuals (three pods) in the wild as of October 2020. While they are protected, there are always threats stemming from food supply issues; pollution and contaminants in the ocean; global warming; and most importantly, human activities.
Whales are extremely sensitive to sound as they can hear (and feel) much higher ranges than humans, so sound pollution from ships can significantly affect them. The NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, requests that people choose land-based whale watching because it decreases the number of boats on the water, which reduces underwater noise that can disturb killer whales. The Whale Trail2 includes many land-based observation sites where you can view and learn about over 30 marine mammals, and there are more than 100 shoreside sites in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California.3
One example of human activity and sound pollution comes from our own U.S. Navy, which “has been authorized for decades to conduct local testing and training, which includes firing torpedoes, detonating bombs and piloting drones.” Recently, NOAA Fisheries approved the U.S. Navy to continue military exercises in Puget Sound and coastal Washington waters for an additional 7 years.4 I personally find it very confusing that they permit the Navy to cause such extreme sound pollution but ask that others reduce theirs.
“Orcas filter incoming sound through high-quality fat in their lower jaws, and this appears to give them abilities to distinguish sound and where it comes from in ways humans probably can’t visualize.”5
Free Willy, starring Keiko
Though the Free Willy movies came out in the 1990s, I had never seen them. This year, since COVID-19 has kept us home, we’re obviously watching a few more movies than before. We watched three of them and even though these movies are a little dated and a little predictable, I enjoyed watching them with my son.
Afterward, I was curious if they were based on a true story, so I researched a little and found that while the movie was fictional, the starring whale, Keiko, had in fact lived in captivity and had later been freed. I wanted to know Keiko’s story so I watched the 2010 documentary, Keiko: the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy. Spoiler alert: I cried at Keiko’s death but he had lived in the ocean instead of a small tank for 5 years, and for a year and a half he swam freely in the ocean. He likely would have lived a much shorter life had he remained in captivity.
His release was and still is controversial, but Keiko’s fame, life, and death hold great importance. One article described that “the fight for his freedom and his subsequent release…brought worldwide attention to the welfare of marine mammals in captivity.”6 Keiko will never be forgotten because of his importance in capturing the attention of the world regarding whales in captivity.
“As a retirement project, it was a 100% success. [Keiko] lived in his natural habitat…the health problems he suffered from all cleared up. He thrived for 5 plus years. How is that a failure?” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose
Then I saw Blackfish, twice. I was so intrigued by the relationships trainers develop with these animals. But there is a huge controversy about orcas in captivity. This film told the story of Tilikum, an orca that was involved in the deaths of three people over the course of his captivity. Tilikum killed an experienced trainer in 2010 and her tragic death was highly publicized. The film highlights the fact that SeaWorld blamed her death on her instead of the whale. I’ll explore Blackfish and killer whales in captivity in this series.
Luna the Whale
One of my favorite documentaries was called The Whale, about a wild orca named Luna that tried to befriend humans after becoming separated from his pod. The whale’s behaviors gained fame and soon many people were trying to interact with him. It became controversial because some marine biologists felt that this was not good for the whale. Luna showed the connections between humans and animals.
Michael Parfit, who coauthored The Lost Whale, said this in the film above: “We meet at a dock in Mooyah Bay and we look at each and we recognize something. This isn’t casual stuff, I thought, this isn’t insignificant…I looked at him, I looked at that awareness that looked back at me, and I thought, we’ve treated you with inconsistency, we’ve treated you with disdain, but still, you trust us. How in the world, I thought, will we ever be forgiven by life, by nature, by ourselves – if we let you suffer just because you’re trying to be our friend?” I wept during this film but it made me appreciate these whales even more. They are such beautiful, social, emotional, and intelligent creatures!
“Many people hope that someday we’ll meet an intelligent being from another world. Hollywood tells us this being will come flying down in a spaceship, and he’ll look a bit like us. Most importantly, he’ll have a mind like ours, and we’ll figure out how to communicate right away. But maybe it won’t be like that. Maybe it will be like this” [showing Luna the orca]. -Ryan Reynolds, narrator of The Whale
More on Orcas
There are many documentaries about orcas, and there are also dozens of books about orcas. I’m still trying to read them all. As I do, I’ll update this post and my Books page. I encourage you to learn and read about orcas! Check your local library to see what resources they may offer. Comment below to let me know if there’s a good book you’ve read that you’d like me to know about! Thanks for reading, please subscribe, and look for my upcoming articles on the Blackfish documentary, SeaWorld, and other marine parks.
Website, “Orcas (Killer Whales): Facts and Information,” National Geographic, accessed November 30, 2020.
Article, “Endangered orcas at risk from U.S. Navy, activists warn,” by Jeff Berardelli, CBS News, July 31, 2020.
Website, “Meet the Different Types of Orcas,” Whale and Dolphin Conservation, accessed December 9, 2020.
Article, “The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed,” The New York Times, September 16, 2013.
Video, “Freeing Willy,” Retro Report, The New York Times, September 16, 2013.
Article, “How to Watch Whales and Dolphins Responsibly,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed January 30, 2021.
Article, “Orca Recovery Day: Why The Whale Trail is greenest way to see marine life in wild,” The Palm Beach Post, October 18, 2019.
Page, “The Luna File,” The Orca Conservancy, accessed May 5, 2021.
Article, “Befriending Luna the Killer Whale: How a popular Smithsonian story about a stranded orca led to a new documentary about humanity’s link to wild animals,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 13, 2008.
Article, “Luna: the Orca Who Wanted to Be Friends,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed May 5, 2021.