Press Keiko the killer whale, who was the star of the Free Willy movies, swims
in his tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore., in 1998. The whale,
who was 27, died Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2003, after the sudden onset of
pneumonia in the Taknes fjord in Norway.
doesn't stop debate
on Free Willy star's return to wild
BY DOUG MELLGREN
For kids, Keiko the killer whale was the charming hero of Free Willy.
For biologists, he was the focus of fierce debate on whether captive animals
could be returned to the wild. Keiko, who died of pneumonia this week, never
strayed far from humans, keeping company with them in a Norwegian fjord to the
Keiko's apparent love of company - and his
popularity - frustrated handlers' dreams that he would one day leave them in
search of food on his own. Millions of dollars were spent trying to teach him
to survive, but he didn't bond with other whales, apparently feared swimming
under ice and died less than two years after he was freed.
"He spoke the language (of whales) but he just seemed to
be confused," said Jeff Foster, whose Seattle-based group, Marine Research
Consultants, oversaw Keiko's care in Iceland for three years before he was
released in 2002.
Keiko's handlers noticed on Thursday he
had become listless, and the 545-tonne orca died Friday afternoon despite
veterinarians' efforts to save him.
"It was pretty
sudden," his animal care specialist, Dane Richards, told The Associated Press.
He said Keiko's handlers went out to check on him during a late afternoon
blizzard and he was still alive. Two hours later, he had died.
Keiko, which means "Lucky One" in Japanese, was born in
1977 or 1978 off Iceland, and was caught for the aquarium industry in 1979.
Known for his distinctive, droopy dorsal fm, he gained
fame as the star of Free Willy, in which a boy befriends a captive killer whale
and coaxes him to jump over a sea park wall to freedom. Two sequels featured
animatronic models, film of wild orcas and leftover footage of Keiko.
The fame Keiko gained from the movies led to a
$20-million drive to free him in real life after it was found he was
languishing in poor conditions in a Mexico City amusement park. He was brought
to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996, and two years later was flown to Iceland.
Once there, handlers taught him to catch his own fish and
interact with wild orca. He was finally released in mid-2002.
David Phillips, executive director of the San
Francisco-based Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, said Keiko's plight changed public
perception of whether a whale could be returned to the wild.
"We took the hardest candidate and took him from near
death in Mexico to swimming with wild whales in Norway," he said. "Keiko proved
a lot of naysayers wrong and that this can work and that is a very powerful
But after 25 years in captivity, Keiko appeared
to prefer human companionship. He swam straight for Norway on a 1,400-kilometre
trek and settled in near a small village of Halsa on Norway's west coast in
August or September 2002.
Once there, he became so
listless that his team started feeding him up to 80 kilograms of fish per day,
and Keiko got handouts until the day he died.
friendly, 7 1/2-metre whale swam up to small boats, and seemed to welcome
people to swim with him and even crawl up on his back. Keiko became so popular
that authorities banned people from approaching him and toured schools asking
people to stay away.
The popularity made training a
struggle for his keepers, who had been trying to keep fans away in the hope
that Keiko, feeling a need to socialize, would seek out wild killer whales.
But people still came to see him, and Keiko seemed to
"He was like the family dog; he wanted to be
next to you," said Mark Collson, a board member for the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
In December 2002, Keiko's caretakers led him to Taknes
Bay, a clear, calm pocket of coastal water deep enough that it doesn't freeze
in winter. The bay is along orca migration routes and is more remote -
something his handlers hoped would force Keiko to seek out his own kind.
Keepers fed him there, but he was free to roam, and often
did at night. In February, he swam under ice for the first time, apparently
panicked and hurt himself trying to break through.
live an average of 35 years in the wild, and it wasn't clear how much Keiko's
time in captivity - or his reintroduction to the outside world - contributed to
Nick Braden, a spokesman of the Humane Society
of the United States, said veterinarians gave Keiko antibiotics after he showed
signs of lethargy, but it wasn't apparent how sick he was.
"They really do die quickly and there was nothing we
could do," he said. "It's a really sad moment for us, but we do believe we gave
him a chance to be in the wild. "
Foster said the orca's
handlers in Norway might not have detected early signs of illness, but it would
have been hard to prevent his rapid slide.
"I think he
was just getting older," Foster said. "Even a subtle change can be devastating
to one of these animals ... one they get pneumonia or one of these viral
diseases that are out there, they can go down pretty fast," he said.
After Keiko died, his keepers covered him with a tarp in
the water, awaiting word on what to do next. Officials from the Free
Willy-Keiko Foundation said they hoped for a land burial rather than disposal
"He has a nice resting place here, and went the
way I would want to go," said Richards. "But you hate to see it."