Keiko (killer whale)

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Keiko in December 1998
SpeciesOrcinus orca
Notable roleWilly in Free Willy

Keiko (1977 – December 12, 2003) was a male orca who starred in the film Free Willy and was perhaps the most famous of captive orcas.


Keiko was captured near 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 spent 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 United States Air Force C-17 Globemaster III to his new home on January 7, 1996. During his years in Oregon he gained over a ton in weight.[1]

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. Later studies concluded attempts to return him to the wild were misguided.[2] 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.[3] Nevertheless, the process of preparing Keiko for the wild began on September 9 , 1998, when he was flown to Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar in Iceland. Upon landing, the C-17 Globemaster aircraft suffered a landing gear failure causing over $1 million in damage, though Keiko was unharmed.[4][5] His day-to-day care became the responsibility of the Ocean Futures Society. He underwent training designed to prepare him for his eventual release, including supervised swims in the open ocean.

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

During one of these "walks" his trainers lost track of Keiko in the open ocean off Iceland on July 11, 2002, and were unable to locate him with the satellite tracking device attached to his dorsal fin. Keiko was finally spotted 870 miles (1,400 km) away off the coast of Norway. In September, he followed a fishing boat to Halsa in Norway where he allowed fans to play with him and crawl over his back. Local marine biologists found him hungry and having lost weight during his stay in the North Atlantic. Several days later his handlers arrived and soon thereafter enticed him to nearby Taknes Bay, hoping to discourage his interaction with humans. They hoped a passing pod of orcas would "adopt" Keiko and lead him back to the open ocean, but the pod never appeared, forcing his trainers to continue to feed and care for Keiko.


Keiko died after beaching himself in Taknes Bay, Norway while under the care of personnel from Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society on December 12, 2003, at 26 years of age. Pneumonia was later determined as his probable cause of death. Following requests from fans of the orca and Free Willy, the Oregon Coast Aquarium held a memorial service for him on February 20, 2004. 700 people attended the service, during which Thomas Chatterton, a veterinary chaplain said, "Keiko was not one of our kind, but nonetheless was still one of us."[6]

There is a memorial site for Keiko set up by the locals in Halsa, Norway. Norwegian school children built a cairn of stones to mark the spot where the body was buried.


Soap operas

  • Azul (1996)...Keiko (Mexican soap opera)
  • Quinceañera (1987)...Orca (Final episode. Mexican soap opera)


  1. ^ Keiko's Story: The Timeline
  2. ^ Why freeing Willy was the wrong thing to do, New Scientists
  3. ^ Michael McCarthy (15 September 1998). "`Turn Keiko into meatballs'". The Independent.
  4. ^ C-17A S/N 96-0006
  5. ^ "C-17 Accident During Whale Lift Due To Design Flaw"
  6. ^ Oregonians bid farewell to Keiko, popular killer whale:Associated Press

External links