Keiko the Orca
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Free Willy at last!

On July 7th 2003 Keiko, the world’s most famous whale, the star of the $154M blockbuster movie “Free Willy” (and Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home,” and Free Willy 3: The Rescue) swam free at last in the Arctic Ocean.   The real story of his return to the wild is more bizarre and touching than any of the Hollywood epics he starred in.  It’s also a story of private and charitable enterprise peacefully negotiating between competing interests without government interference.   Not surprisingly the outcome was satisfactory. 

Keiko is an Orcinus orca, more usually known as an Orca, or killer whale.  Orcas live mainly off fish and seals but have little blubber and poor tasting meat so they are not worth hunting by commercial whalers.   Unluckily for Keiko, Orcas also look attractive and can be easily tamed to do tricks for sentimental humans, so over a hundred have been taken alive for display in zoos around the world.  In 1979 Keiko was captured near Iceland and joined the fifty or so survivors.    

Until 1993 he led a modest life in a series of run down amusement parks, ending up in 1985 in Reino Aventura in Mexico City.   This was not a good place.  The pool was too small, the water too warm and he was alone.  Hardly surprisingly he lost weight, developed warts and ground his teeth down on the side of the pool.  

But his luck turned when Hollywood needed a whale star.  Sea World, the owners of most of the other captive US Orcas, were understandably reluctant to allow their charges to star in a movie about freeing an unhappy killer whale, and Keiko's down-at-heel facility was ideal for the movie.  So Keiko got the role. 

The movie grossed over Ł100 million and the kids who loved it sent in money to free the real Willy, Keiko.   Extraordinary publicity ensued.  Warner Brothers stumped up $1 million and a telecommunications tycoon Craig McGraw bunged in another $1 million just for starters.  

In 1996 Keiko was transferred to a much better tank in the Oregon Coast Aquarium, in Newport Oregon.  There he put on weight, got rid of his warts, tidied up his teeth and made his new hosts rich.   In 1997 over a million people paid to see him.  Not surprisingly many staff in the Oregon Aquarium wondered if he really would benefit from being freed.  Perhaps he’d grown too soft; perhaps he could not hunt or find his way around the ocean.  Maybe some whaler would kill him.   

Such doubters were over ruled.  The plan to free him back in his home waters around Iceland went ahead in Sept 1998, when he was transferred to a sea pen in a fiord on the coast of Westman Island.  Craig McGraw was paying about 3 million a year to keep the project going by this stage. 

Then things went wrong.  Keiko liked captivity too much.   When other whales were sighted nearby he often swam out to meet them but always returned to his pen soon after.   By 2001 he was staying a little longer with groups of wild whales but still always returning.  In winter when no wild whales were nearby he stayed in his pen as tractable as always.  Was he just too domesticated to ever return to the wild, or did his trainers secretly not want to let him go?   Even more seriously Craig McGraw’s company had taken a dive in the stock market crash after Sept 11, and funding was drying up.  

Fortunately Keiko took the hint.  On July 7th he swam out to meet another pod of killer whales and never returned.  Electronic tags soon  indicated that he was covering 60 miles a day and he soon set off for Norway where he recently turned up in Skalvik Fiord.  

At the time of writing it is not clear whether this is a good or bad development. Certainly he has swum 1000 miles across the Arctic ocean and appears to be in good shape.  Measurements of his girth suggest he’s not lost weight so presumably he’s foraging OK in the wild.  The worry is that the Norwegian public have already started swimming with and feeding him and may be delaying his return to the wild.  For the latest news click here.

Meanwhile what a lovely story!   Hard-nosed fishermen catch him and sell him to hard-nosed theme park owners to make money from sentimental kids.  Then hard-nosed Hollywood moguls make a sentimental movie about him, and the kids and their sentimental elders spend a fortune freeing him, while the hard-nosed owners of other captive Orcas look on in horror.   Many, possibly even all 50, captive Orcas will probably be freed in the near future.  They may or may not be happier, but many people will feel better.  Future Orcas who remain wild rather than being captured will certainly be better off.  Sure a few theme parks will downsize or close, and a lot of children will have a less good day out, but many of them will be the same ones who on another day got pleasure from Keiko’s story.   Most importantly all of us are learning that it’s better to get our pleasure from wild animals by photography and study in the wild than by capturing and training them to do tricks. 

How lucky we (and Keiko) are that government kept away!

Jim Thornton, Nottingham 11 Oct 2003. 


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Last modified: September 20, 2006