No, that leap over the wall in the movie Free Willy was done with special effects, and not with Keiko. The real life effort to bring Keiko back to his home waters was much more complicated than shown in the movie! Keiko had to be nurtured to regain his health and also exercised to get used to swimming in the ocean again and catching his own food. Keiko’s odyssey from a tiny tank in Mexico all the way to swimming in his home waters took several years.
Keiko lived for more than 5 years in his bay sea sanctuary, as well as out in the Atlantic waters, sometimes in the company of wild whales, and finally in a protected cove in Norway.
When Keiko was rescued, he was severely underweight at only 7,720 pounds. By the time he was returned to his home waters in Iceland, he had achieved his full length of about 24 feet and weighed approximately 11,500 pounds!
Keiko’s dorsal fin drooped over instead of standing straight up. Most scientists believe that this dorsal fin collapse in captivity is due to unidirectional swimming in small shallow circles. In the wild, male orcas regularly dive deep, and swim hundreds of miles, activities which are thought to strengthen their nearly 6 foot long dorsal fins as they grow and develop.
Drooping dorsal fins are rare in wild male orcas, yet happens with almost all male orcas in captivity. (Female dorsal fins are much smaller and usually do not droop in captivity.) There is no known instance of a collapsed drooping dorsal fin ever straightening.
Keiko was born in the waters of Iceland in 1977 or 1978. He was about two years old when he was captured. Keiko was first held by fishermen in an aquarium in Iceland and then sold to Marineland in Canada. Three years later, when he was about 5 years old, he was sold to a Mexico City amusement park, Reino Adventura.
Mexico City is a mile high, which means thin air, and bright sun. There is also lots of air pollution. Keiko’s tank was too warm, extremely small, and filled with tap water mixed with salt rather than real seawater. Keiko was extremely popular with the public, but his health deteriorated during his confinement in Mexico.
The short answer is that Keiko was 19 years old when he was finally rescued from the tiny tank in Mexico City. The whole answer is more complicated.
Keiko was about 15 years old when Warner Brothers began filming the movie Free Willy in 1992, which became a surprise hit in 1993. Warner Brothers used Keiko for the film in his Mexico City tank, because US aquariums refused to allow filming of the story in their facilities.
In 1994, the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute (EII), our environmental advocacy group for marine wildlife, was invited by Warner Brothers to put together a plan to rescue and relocate Keiko. Tens of thousands of young people who’d seen the Free Willy movie wanted to know what was happening with the real life orca and were upset to hear that Keiko was still in captivity.
We began the search for a location where Keiko’s health could be restored, and he could be trained for potential release to the wild. In November 1994, EII formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation (FWKF) with the financial support of Warner Bros. and telecommunication pioneer Craig McCaw and his wife Wendy McCaw. The FWK Foundation built a large, state-of-the-art facility for Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon.
In 1995, Reino Adventura donated Keiko to the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation. We announced that Keiko would be moved to the new $7.3 million rehabilitation facility at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The Humane Society of the United States also became a sponsor. Before Keiko could be moved from Mexico City, we had the water in his tiny tank chilled to be more like his natural habitat.
On January 7, 1996, United Parcel Service stepped forward to donate the airlifting of Keiko from Mexico City to the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Keiko was in very poor health and underweight.
In his large, new aquarium in Oregon, Keiko experienced cool, natural seawater, pumped from the ocean, for the first time in 14 years. It also had a special system to keep it clean without harsh chemicals.
With the help of the Foundation’s veterinarian care, Keiko gained more than 1,000 pounds in that first year alone, and by year's end his skin lesions had almost entirely healed. He began to learn the kinds of skills he would need in the wild, including how to catch his own live fish.
In 1998, after nearly 3 years of rehabilitation and training, our veterinarian determined that Keiko was in good health. He was catching and eating live steelhead weighing from three to 12 pounds each, comprising up to half of his daily intake of food. He had achieved normal weight for his age and was deemed by experts ready to live in a large sea pen in a protected bay in his native waters in Iceland.
After considerable negotiations, the Icelandic government approved our foundation’s proposal that Keiko be allowed to return to a seaside sanctuary in his home waters. We built a large sea pen in a protected bay there. On September 9th, 1998, we arranged for Keiko to be airlifted from his tank in Newport, Oregon and transported by a US Air Force C-17 transport jet directly to Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Yes, at first Keiko remained in his sea pen, catching live fish and becoming acclimated to life in the ocean. Soon he was able to swim in the whole netted off bay. Then he began to make forays out into the open ocean, with a guide boat, sometimes even in the company of wild orcas. By the summer of 2002, he was spending considerable time on his own out in the ocean, occasionally with other orcas.
One day in 2002, he began an epic journey on his own nearly 1000 miles across the North Atlantic to the coast of Norway. He was totally on his own for close to 60 days without any supplemental food from humans. Based on documented diving behavior and his healthy and robust condition on his arrival in Norway, Keiko’s veterinarian and leading orca scientists concluded that there was strong evidence that he successfully fed himself, a major milestone on his journey back to the wild.
Keiko encountered many people and boats in Norway. For his protection he was moved to a quieter fjord where he could also go out into the open ocean waters, which he did frequently.
On December 12, 2003, the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States reported that Keiko, the orca whale, died in the Taknes Fjord, Norway, in the company of staff members who had been caring for him there. Keiko's veterinarian believes that acute pneumonia was the most likely cause of death.
Keiko was about 27 years old when he died. Wild male orcas are believed to live from 35 to 50 years or more. Keiko was the second oldest male orca who’d ever lived in long-term captivity. Keiko is the only long-term captive orca who has ever been given the chance to return to his native waters.
No, Keiko was able to regain his health in natural seawater. He was able to relearn the skills necessary to feed himself in the wild and interact with wild orcas in his native waters. None of this would have been possible in a concrete tank.
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.
There are many things you can do personally and with others to help whales and dolphins around the world.
US laws continue to encourage the keeping of dolphins and whales in captivity in small tanks to entertain us, a cruel and inhumane practice that has now been outlawed by several other countries around the world. Furthermore, the capturing of whales and dolphins for captivity is extremely harmful, with many animals dying. In several places, notably Taiji, Japan, whales and dolphins are slaughtered, but some are caught for captivity, effectively subsidizing the slaughter through the lucrative activity of selling live dolphins and whales on the world market for a life-time sentence to captivity.
Some places still kill whales and dolphins for food, while obstacles such as fishing nets and ropes can entangle and kill orcas and other sea life. Offshore oil drilling, plastics and other pollution cause harm to these animals and to all life in the sea.
Tell Your Friends and Family: Let others know about the plight of whales and dolphins. Share what you have learned, including through social media.
Go to Websites and Libraries to Learn More: You can learn a lot on the Internet about what is happening to whales and dolphins and how you can help. Check out our website: www.SaveDolphins.eii.org and the websites of other marine mammal conservation organizations. Your librarian can help find information for you on whales and dolphins.
Show A Movie: There are several great videos out about whales and dolphins, including “Blackfish”, “The Cove,” “A Fall from Freedom”, and “Keiko: The Untold Story.” Rent or download a video and show it in your home or school. Ask a teacher to help you set up a screening in your school.
Also, be sure to watch and share the following two short videos which are posted on our website:
Chance to be Free – Exposes misinformation generated by SeaWorld about the welfare of orcas and dolphins in captivity.
Lives of Wild Dolphins – Focuses on the lives of wild dolphins…their communities, intelligence and beauty.
Start a Club: Schools, as well as religious and civic groups, provide a good place to start a club to help whales and dolphins. Ask a teacher, religious leader or community leader to help you. You can circulate petitions and raise funds for people working to save dolphins and whales. You can also educate more people. Brainstorm ideas with the club members to help whales and dolphins.
Children have led many successful campaigns for the protection of dolphins and whales. It was inquiries from children as well as their raising funds that helped EII rehabilitate and release Keiko back into his home waters. Many children boycotted dolphin-deadly tuna at the behest of EII in the 1980’s, leading to the adoption of Dolphin Safe tuna by the US tuna industry and Congress.
Hold a Fundraiser: As an individual, or as part of a club, you can raise funds to protect orcas through the non-profit Free Willy/Keiko Foundation. Fundraisers can be effective if connected to a film screening and public education. You can also hold creative fundraisers such as bake sale, yard sale, car wash, spaghetti night, scavenger hunt, karaoke eve, fashion show, raffle, etc. All checks should be sent to:
Free Willy/Keiko Foundation
2150 Allston Way, Suite 460
Berkeley, CA 94704
Donations can also be made online.
Contact Government Decisionmakers: Your representative and senators often deal with issues related to dolphins and whales. You can write your members of Congress urging them to take action to help dolphins and whales. If you are a citizen of another country, contact the elected officials in your country to urge them to protect whales and dolphins.
Plan and participate in demonstrations and rallies supporting keeping whales and dolphins wild and free. Learn about local opportunities and enlist your friends to stand together. Volunteer at a local marine mammal rehabilitation facility or marine conservation group.
Follow our news for updates on the most pressing issues facing whales and dolphins and how you can engage.
Become a Marine Biologist, Lawyer, Educator: You can help whales and dolphins by studying in school to become a biologist, a lawyer, an educator or an activist with a non-profit organization. There are many professions that can help – for example, if you like the arts, consider becoming an artist who emphasizes the need to protect whales and dolphins. You have within you the ability to be anything you want, so plan ahead and study hard!