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.12 But 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
Film, Keiko: The Untold Story, 2010.
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.