Keiko (orca)

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Keiko on December 1, 1998
Species Orcinus orca
Sex Male
Born c. 1976
Near Iceland
Died December 12, 2003(2003-12-12) (aged 27)
Taknes Fjord, Norway
Years active 1993 - 2003
Notable role Willy in Free Willy
Weight 6 tons (12,000 pounds)

Keiko (earlier Siggi[1]) (c. 1976 – December 12, 2003) was a male orca who is best known for portraying Willy in the 1993 film Free Willy and an attempt to reintegrate the whale into the wild.


Keiko, whose name means "lucky one" in the Japanese language but is given only to females,[2][3] was captured near Reyðarfjörður, Iceland in 1979 and sold to the Icelandic aquarium in Hafnarfjörður. Three years later he was sold to Marineland in Ontario where he first started performing for the public and developed skin lesions indicative of poor health. He was then sold to Reino Aventura (now named Six Flags Mexico), an amusement park in Mexico City, in 1985. He was the star of the movie Free Willy in 1993.

The publicity from his role in Free Willy led to an effort by Warner Brothers Studio to find him a better home. Donations from the studio and Craig McCaw led to the establishment of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation in February 1995. With donations from the foundation and millions of school children, the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon was given over $7 million to construct facilities to return him to health with the hope of returning him to the wild. UPS provided ground transportation to the nearby Newport Municipal Airport in a specialized container. Weighing 3500 kg (7720 pounds), he was transported by air in a C-130 Hercules donated by UPS to his new home on January 7, 1996. During his years in Oregon his weight increased over a ton.[4]

The plan to return him to the wild was a topic of much controversy. Some felt his years of captivity made such a return impossible. Researchers in a scientific study later said attempts to return him to the wild were unsuccessful, but that monitoring him with radio and satellite tags was part of "a contingency plan for return to human care," which secured "the long-term well-being of the animal.".[5] Others considered his release misguided.[6] The Norwegian pro-whaling politician Steinar Bastesen made international news for his statement that Keiko should instead be killed and the meat sent to Africa as foreign aid.[7] Nevertheless, the process of preparing Keiko for the wild began on September 9, 1998, when he was flown to Klettsvík, a bay on the island of Heimaey in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. Upon landing, the C-17 Globemaster aircraft suffered a landing gear failure causing over $1 million in damage, though Keiko was unharmed.[8][9] His day-to-day care became the responsibility of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation with management assistance from the Ocean Futures Society. He underwent training designed to prepare him for his eventual release, including supervised swims in the open ocean.

Ocean Futures left the Keiko project in late 2001. The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and The Humane Society of the United States re-established management of the project at that time until Keiko's death in 2003. Keiko finally departed Icelandic waters with wild whales in early August 2002. However, about three weeks later he showed up in a Norwegian fjord, apparently seeking contact with human beings and allowing children to ride on his back.[10] His caretakers relocated to Norway and continued to conduct boat-follows with Keiko for the next 15 months.[11] He failed to reintegrate with wild whales,[12] but on the basis of girth measurements and blood tests, it was assumed that he fed during his 900 mile journey to Norway from Iceland.[13]

Loading Keiko onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport on September 9, 1998 in Newport, Oregon for transport to the Westman Islands in Iceland


Keiko died in Taknes Bay, Norway while swimming in the fjords on December 12, 2003, at about 26 years of age. Pneumonia was determined as his probable cause of death by his veterinarian. Keiko was buried in the cover of darkness in the middle of a blizzard, in the presence of three members of his caretaking team (an American, an Icelander and a Norwegian), the land owners and the machine operator. Members of the paparazzi tried to get pictures of Keiko's dead body.

There is a memorial site for Keiko set up by the locals in Halsa, Norway. Norwegian school children built a wooden cairn to mark the spot where he is buried. Tourists continue to travel to Norway every year to see Keiko’s final resting place, honoring his legacy as the most famous whale in the world and an ambassador of captive whales worldwide.[14]


In 2010 the film Keiko: The Untold Story was released. In 2013 a New York Times video, The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed, included interviews about Keiko's only partly successful return to the ocean.[15]


  1. ^ Stephensen, Sindri (June 10, 2010). "Aftur til fortíðar: Þegar ísbirnir voru í Sædýrasafninu í Hafnar- firði - og ljón, apar og kengúrur". (in Icelandic). Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  2. ^ Keiko the Whale
  3. ^ [1] BBC NEWS | Keiko the 'Free Willy' Whale Dies
  4. ^ Keiko's Story: The Timeline
  5. ^ M. Simon, M. B. Hanson, L. Murrey, J. Tougaard,& F. Ugarte (2009). "An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale". Marine Mammal Science 25 (3): 693–705. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2009.00287.x. 
  6. ^ Why freeing Willy was the wrong thing to do, Catherine Brahic, New Scientist, 28 April 2009
  7. ^ McCarthy, Michael (15 September 1998). "`Turn Keiko into meatballs'". The Independent. 
  8. ^ C-17A S/N 96-0006
  9. ^ "C-17 Accident During Whale Lift Due To Design Flaw"[dead link]
  10. ^ "Keiko not so 'Wild' in Norway". 2 September 2002 [updated 31 August 2006]. Retrieved 29 October 2013. 
  11. ^ M. Simon, M. B. Hanson, L. Murrey, J. Tougaard,& F. Ugarte (2009). "An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale". Marine Mammal Science 25 (3): 693–705. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2009.00287.x. 
  12. ^ "Keiko in Norway". Ex Viking. Retrieved December 27, 2013. 
  13. ^ M. Simon, M. B. Hanson, L. Murrey, J. Tougaard,& F. Ugarte (2009). "An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale". Marine Mammal Science 25 (3): 693–705. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2009.00287.x. 
  14. ^ "Keiko deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame". 2013-03-16. 
  15. ^ Winerip, Michael (16 September 2013). "Retro Report: The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed" (video, 11:43). New York Times. Retrieved 17 September 2013. 

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