December 12, 2003: Keiko's life has ended.
Keiko listens to Southern Resident orca calls in 1993.
Keiko swims free in Iceland in 2002.
Compiled by Howard Garrett
Anthropologists tell us that the stories we tell shape our perceptions of the world. No story about a whale, or probably about any non-human animal, has been told more than Keiko’s story, so just by virtue of repetition it is historically important as cultural myth. Keiko brings to public awareness three things, if the story is told the way it has actually happened:
An animal welfare/rights issue involving the exploitation and mistreatment of orcas and animals in general;
Keiko's perilous journey to freedom is also an adventure, with danger and rewards, good guys and bad guys. Much of this history is drawn from personal conversations and news reports. For ten years we've heard a drumbeat of unfounded cynicism about Keiko's prospects from park industry and media critics who are not familiar with the natural history of the species in natural settings and are not accepting factual information, some of it recently learned. This telling of Keiko's history is intended to help people learn from his example. There have been many others intimately involved in Keiko's long reintroduction process who may have other perspectives. Please contact Orca Network with any additions or corrections to this rendition of Keiko's story.
A true story that demonstrates the immense capabilities of these marine mammals and helps correct a vast quantity of misleading information;
And an opportunity for the marine mammal scientific community to demonstrate their abilities to the general public by solving the problems of returning long-term captive orcas to their native waters. Scientists have shown the public the value of their methods of photo-identification, DNA techniques, sensing and telemetry, and acoustic science. These advances in field study methods can be applied to solving problems associated with retiring captives, even captive-born orcas, to natural settings, and potentially rehabilitating them for at least partial release.
My vantage point: In late June of 1993 I began seriously considering the question of Keiko's release with whale biologist Ken Balcomb, when he was first brought in by the movie's producers. In September, 1993 Ken was actually given Keiko for release by his owner, Reino Aventura. That agreement was broken, but nevertheless, Ken researched every shred of evidence or helpful advice he could find as he considered how to release Keiko. I handled phone calls and media while Ken was out of the country for six months starting in October, 1993. We've looked at more material than I could possibly include in this summary. For more background please visit Letter to Mayor Alex Penelas. In 1993-4 Balcomb produced a Bibliography of Cetacean Releases, and a compilation of Cetacean Releases to help guide his efforts to return Keiko to his home waters. More recent news about Springer and Luna and, of course, Keiko's story, fully support our original belief that long term captive orcas are capable of return to their natural habitats.
And now…Keiko’s Life Story…
Between 1977 and 1980: Keiko is born in the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland.
1979 to 1981: As Keiko (first called “Kago”) was with his family gobbling leftovers from a herring boat, he is captured by Jon Gunnarson for $50,000, and brought to an Icelandic aquarium, or possibly to a private zoo in southern Iceland. There is no documentation of the capture, a practice known as "hiding" whales that are in excess of capture permits.
1980-1982: Marineland in Ontario, Canada, buys Kago, where he is kept for an undetermined time in a warehouse, in a shallow pool without sun, out of public view. There is no documentation of his purchase or transport to Marineland.
Another Icelandic orca, named Junior, died in 1994 in this warehouse at the age of nine, after five years of incarceration.
1982: Kago is brought before the public, but is picked on by older female orcas. He is the youngest of six orcas performing there, and he is the most timid. Skin lesions, called pappiloma, first appear.
1985: Marineland sells young Kago to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City, for $350,000. According to rumors, the Hunt Bros. of Texas broker the deal. Air Canada was to fly Keiko from Ontario to Mexico City, but a Congressman from Illinois pointed out that that should not be allowed over US air space because no permit had been issued by NMFS. Then, Kago was to fly via the Bahamas, but the same Congressman pointed out that the airfield in Nassau was also controlled by the US via NATO agreements. Air Canada subsequently declined to fly him. Aeroflot then offered to fly him via Cuba, but that was also objected to by the Congressman. Finally, on February 16, Kago was flown via an off-duty mail cargo plane from the Northwest Territories on a weekend, presumably over US airspace.
At seven years of age Keiko is a huge attraction in Mexico, a marketing bonanza. He performs 5 shows a day. The tank, intended for dolphins, is 20-feet-deep, 90 feet long and 43 feet wide. It is warm (80 degrees), and crudely chlorinated with artificial saltwater. The children of Mexico City adore him. The name “Kago” has scatological connotations in Spanish, so he was renamed Keiko, which is a female name meaning “Lucky one” in Japanese.
1991: Reino Aventura realizes that Keiko has outgrown his tank, is unhealthy and may die unless moved to a better place. They try to sell him to Sea World, but the deal falls apart. Keiko reproduces the sounds of the dolphins he shares his tank with and even answers Mexican police sirens. Once, when a caretaker's 18-month-old son falls silently into the pool with Keiko, Keiko raises him to the surface and deposits him on the walkway, saving his life before anyone knew he had fallen in. The scene is incorporated into “Free Willy.” They expect to use a robot whale for the scene, but they give Keiko a try, and he performs flawlessly on the first take. The cast and crew grow very fond of Keiko.
1992: Warner Bros. Studios films Free Willy on location in Mexico City. Intended as an anti-whaling film, the producers were unable to find an engaging children's story about whaling, but they locate a script about a boy saving a captive whale from an unscrupulous marine park owner. Producers ask Sea World and the Miami Seaquarium if they would allow filming at their pools, but they turn it down because the theme and ending of the movie are unacceptable, unless the ending was changed to the whale going to a better aquarium like Sea World.
As the set and equipment are being taken away on the last day of shooting, Keiko breaches repeatedly, something he’s never before done without being asked, splashing water on the crew, apparently agitated that the excitement is about to come to an end.
Summer, 1993: With Reino Aventura's cooperation, Warner Bros. and film producers Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler-Donner take the first steps toward finding Keiko a better home. They ask whale biologist Ken Balcomb, founder and director of the Center for Whale Research, and others to come up with a plan. Balcomb begins researching a release plan. He produces a compilation of every release or attempted release of a whale or dolphin, worldwide, and a bibliography of any resource that may help carry out Keiko's release. Dr. Lanny Cornell examines Keiko for Fund for Animals and writes a report stating that Keiko's skin problems are the result of environmental stresses and not related to any virus, so it is not contagious.
Free Willy is a surprise hit in theaters, especially for millions of children around the world. A toll-free phone number is included in the credits, asking people to call to help save the whales from commercial whaling. After seeing the movie, more than 300,000 people call the number displayed at the end of the movie, most expressing their wish for Keiko's freedom: “Please save Willy.”
The star of the show is in failing health, and attention is drawn to the unacceptable living conditions in the park in Mexico City. Keiko now is severely underweight, has a weak immune system, is afflicted with many skin lesions, has ulcers and digestive problems, and his muscles are weak. He is sluggish, out of shape, and can only hold his breath for about 3 minutes. The outlines of his skull and ribcage can be seen. It is clear he is slowly dying.
Anheuser-Busch owns Sea World and has a large investment in orcas held captive for display at their parks. The premise of Free Willy has two big problems for Busch – an unscrupulous marine park owner, and the successful release of Willy.
August 31, 1993: A coalition of Animal Rights groups meets with Oscar Porter, co-owner and manager of Reino Aventura. Balcomb invites Busch Entertainment, owner of Sea World, to send a representative to the meeting, and notifies Warner Bros. that he is proposing a release plan for Keiko, and would accept assistance from trainers and veterinarians. Balcomb is chosen by Reino to take Keiko and direct a project to return Keiko to his native waters in the North Atlantic. Attending are Dr. Jose Solarzano, Keiko's veterinarian; Mario Aguilar, Mexico's minister of environmental affairs; Ricardo Contreras, one of Keiko's trainers; Ben White, representing In Defense of Animals and a coalition of over a dozen animal protection groups; Kate O'Connell, American representative of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society of London; Dr. Naomi Rose, specialist in wild orca behavior and marine mammal scientist for the Humane Society of the U.S.; Jo Beth McDaniel, a writer for Life magazine; and several others. Porter further agreed that he would not negotiate with any other group, including Sea World, for six months, while Balcomb drew up a complete plan for Keiko, and that he would draft a "Letter of Intention" to spell out the agreement by September 15. The belief is born that Keiko can be released!
Keiko listens to orca calls, shows a measurable response. He becomes sexually aroused.
One day later, on September 1, 1993: Vancouver Aquarium director John Nightingale sends a fax to Reino saying: “All institutions holding killer whales in North America have pledged to work together to solve the problem of providing better conditions for Keiko immediately…”
September 2, 1993: The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, representing 31 zoos and aquariums, sends a fax to Reino which “reconfirms the commitment already made to ensure the health and well-being of Keiko.” Reino was apparently unaware of this commitment, or they would not have made an agreement with Balcomb. Warner Bros. makes clear to Balcomb that they will not support his release plan. Tim Desmond, the trainer who coached Keiko for the film, doubted that Keiko could develop “the necessary social skills to reintegrate into a wild social unit.”
September 9, 1993: Alliance issues a press release stating that “the Alliance stepped in to offer a comprehensive rescue program in a letter to Keiko's owner” and “a home will be provided for long term recovery.”
September 14, 1993: Reino faxes a letter to HSUS saying “We will have the visit of the technicians on Sept. 15.”
September 15, 1993: The Shamu jet lands in Mexico City, filled with executives and veterinarians promising to take charge of Keiko's rehabilitation. They don’t know that Sept. 16 is Mexican Independence Day and they can’t meet with anyone until the 17th. Apparently the trip was arranged in a hurry.
October 19, 1993: Business Week reports that Reino Aventura: “accepted the offer from the Alliance.” Balcomb travels to Iceland to begin researching Keiko’s family pod.
October 21, 1993: Reino issues a press release saying the Alliance agreed to "finding an interim home in less than a year where recovery programs can continue.“ Balcomb, meanwhile, arranges Keiko’s transport by airplane to a rehabilitation site in the US.
October 25, 1993: Sea World announces an agreement with Reino to aid Keiko”, stating "if his condition allows, to find him a suitable home at another marine life park...” and “Sea World has been seeking better conditions and a new home for the killer whale for more than two years.”
November, 1993: JoBeth McDaniel's Life Magazine story called “Won't somebody please save this whale?” describes inadequate facilities for Keiko at Reino Aventura and Balcomb's release plan. Photos show Keiko’s bloody lip from scratching the poolside. So many people call Life, wanting to help Keiko, that the magazine has to set up a special phone line.They receive more calls about it than any other story in the preceding decade. Balcomb arranges a shipment of fresh frozen Atlantic herring from Iceland for Keiko. They are not given to Keiko.
Craig McCaw and his then-wife Wendy read a Wall St. Journal report based on the Life magazine story, and decide to help. McCaw has just sold his cellular phone business to ATT for $11.5 billion. Keiko would never have left Mexico without the help of Craig McCaw.
November 25, 1993: Balcomb proposes to the Society for Marine Mammalogy at its biennial conference in Galveston, Texas that a commission be formed to investigate methods to release a long-term captive orca. His proposal is rejected without discussion.
Winter, 1993-4: With media interest in Keiko sizzling, a variety of proposals are put forth to save him. Park industry people propose a rehab facility on Cape Cod that would also attract tourists, but negative publicity and lack of financing stop the plan. At one point, entertainer Michael Jackson, who sang “Will you be there,” the theme song for Free Willy, tries to buy Keiko and move him to his ranch in California.
January, 1994: Craig McCaw contacts Balcomb to discuss providing financial support for his plan to release Keiko.
March, 1994: At a meeting at McCaw's headquarters in Kirkland, Balcomb spells out the biological reasons why Keiko can be safely released, and gives top priority to the study of Keiko’s family off Iceland. The notion of release joins forces with the financial resources to accomplish it.
March 7, 1994: Chicago Tribune reports that Brad Andrews, director of zoological operations for Sea World, a member of the Alliance, says Sea World won’t take Keiko. He says maybe Miami Seaquarium will take him, or the Hong Kong aquarium. Reino is stuck with a high profile whale it can’t take care of.
April 11, 1994: News reports detail Balcomb's proposal to rehab Keiko in the Bahamas, halfway between Mexico City and Iceland, then take him on "ocean walks," eventually back to Iceland. Negative reaction is swift and derisive.
April 17, 1994: Balcomb releases The Wild Willy Project - A PROPOSAL TO REHABILITATE AND OCEAN TRAIN KEIKO FOR POTENTIAL REINTRODUCTION TO THE WILD, which states: “There is no inherent biological or physical reason why rehabilitation/ocean training cannot be prescribed for any of these naturally hardy animals, even after prolonged captivity.”
May, 1994: Sea World, attempting to avoid image problem #1 (the unscrupulous marine park owner), after refusing to take Keiko, installs chillers and a filter system in Keiko's tank. Keiko also receives laser treatment for his skin. He becomes more independent and aggressive toward trainers, and makes a habit of spitting water at female ushers.
May 11, 1994: Balcomb travels to Mexico and meets with Oscar Porter again to go over his proposal to rejoin Keiko with his family. His proposal consists of rehabilitating Keiko in a pen for a year or more and, if healthy, he would swim or be transported to Iceland. Meanwhile, studies would identify social groups of Icelandic orcas. Porter listens and seems to consider Balcomb’s plan.
May 12, 1994: McCaw’s attorney contacts Reino Aventura with offer of $2.5 million to implement Balcomb's reintroduction plan for Keiko. The proposal is vehemently rejected. Balcomb accepts the fact that he is out of the game. The notion of release for Keiko, however, lives on.
June, 1994: El Processo reports that Reino Aventura is receiving 100 letters a day wanting Keiko's release. Sea World officials are again quoted saying that they will not take Keiko at any of their parks. They cite Keiko’s supposedly contagious skin problem, although it is known by veterinarians that the problem is due to stress and is not contagious, so possibly they fear the publicity of holding a whale that represents freedom. Keiko, it appears, will likely die in Mexico.
Fall, 1994: Earth Island Institute of San Francisco begins discussions with the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation (FWKF) is formed in November with a donation from Warner Bros. and an anonymous donor (Craig McCaw), with the hope that Keiko can one day be released back into the wild. The Foundation says Keiko could be the first of many marine mammals rescued and rehabilitated. $31,000 is raised from an elementary school in Tampa, Fla.
February, 1995: Reino Aventura donates Keiko to the Free Willy Keiko Foundation (FWKF). The Foundation announces Keiko will live at a new $7.3 million rehabilitation facility at the Aquarium, with the hope he eventually will be returned to live in the North Atlantic. Craig McCaw and the McCaw Foundation are revealed as the anonymous donors of $2 million that helped start the Foundation. The Humane Society of the United States donates $1 million to the Foundation, and children around the world continue sending in money for Keiko's freedom. "Free Willy 2" is released on home video, each video carrying a request for donations to be sent to the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.
February, 1995: Brad Andrews (Sea World) insists that when the Alliance stepped in they did not know that Balcomb had struck an agreement with the Mexico park. Recall that Balcomb had called Busch Entertainment and invited them to come to the meeting where the agreement took place.
December, 1995: Keiko’s new tank is built in just five months. Oscillating water jets and rubbing rocks are installed. Brad Andrews and other spokespeople for the park industry state publicly that Keiko should never be released because he carries a contagious virus that could infect wild populations. Dr. Greg Bossart, veterinarian for the Miami Seaquarium, (et al.) publish “Cutaneous papillomaviral-like papillomatosis in a killer whale (Keiko)” in the journal of the Society for Marine Mammalogy. The paper mentions the word “virus” in the title and throughout the paper, and it states that this virus is the “first case” found in a killer whale, strongly suggesting that Keiko was infected with a virus foreign to wild populations, without quite ever stating clearly that Keiko actually carried any virus.
January 7, 1996: In Mexico City, more than 27,000 people silently file by Keiko's pool to say their last goodbyes to the whale they had known and loved for 11 years. As many as 100,000 people line the expressway and crowd onto its pedestrian overpasses to wave goodbye as Keiko is driven, packed in ice water in a UPS crate with a sticker reading “THIS SIDE UP,” to the Mexico City airport. So many of his fans attempt to accompany the “Keiko Express” that the fifteen mile trip to the airport, which began a little after midnight, takes until 3:30 in the morning.
After a 20 hour flight, United Parcel Service delivers Keiko to the Newport aquarium. 750 million TV viewers watch Keiko's move. Karla and Renata, Keiko’s trainers in Mexico, accompany him to Oregon. Weighing just 7,720 pounds and about 20' in length, Keiko is placed in his new 2 million-gallon concrete pool and experiences seawater for the first time in 14 years. The pool has a closed-loop ionization filtration system, to avoid contaminating Pacific Ocean water while giving Keiko real seawater.
September, 1996: After just nine months, Keiko is already looking much better. His skin warts are rapidly disappearing, he is more energetic and his blood is healthier. Foundation staff take over from Aquarium staff to direct Keiko's rehabilitation.
January, 1997: Keiko has gained more than 1,000 pounds in the year since he was moved to Newport. Almost all his skin lesions have disappeared, his ulcers are gone and his cardiovascular fitness and overall muscle tone have dramatically improved. Attendance at the Oregon Coast Aquarium was 600,000 in 1995 and jumps to 1.3 million with Keiko's arrival in 1996.
Beginning in January the Aquarium refuses to change the filters in the closed circulation system. By July the water is murky and contaminated with Keiko's excrement.
Spring, 1997: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) scientists begin 15-month program to study Keiko's vocalizations. They install two above-water and six underwater cameras and three hydrophones in Keiko's pool to register his every move and squeak. They discover that Keiko uses North Atlantic orca dialects, but don't tell anyone, and nobody asks. They announce that Keiko can echolocate.
Balcomb records Keiko's calls through viewing window. Subjected to spectrographic analysis, they match North Atlantic calls. He tells me, I tell a journalist.
May, 1997: Keiko's rehabilitation staff begin introducing live fish into his pool on a regular basis. At first he catches, but does not eat the fish, instead he returns them to the trainers. He soon catches and eats his first fish.
Keiko is finally lesion-free for the first time since 1982. Foundation staff grow optimistic that he can make the next step to Iceland.
June, 1997: Keiko is weighed and tops out at 9,620 pounds -- an incredible weight gain of 1,900 pounds in just 18 months. He’s also grown 8 inches longer, to over 21’. Foundation staff sets its sights on relocating Keiko to a bay pen in the North Atlantic sometime in 1998.
July, 1997: 2,000 live herring are added to Keiko's tank. He eats some of them, ignores others, and brings some to his trainers.
August, 1997: Still swimming in his own waste, Keiko suffers from a respiratory infection, parasites and nematodes but is treated and responds well. The Foundation changes the filters and cleans up the water.
September, 1997: Several Oregon newspapers and TV stations receive anonymous statements that outline OCA's concerns about Keiko’s health and implicate the Foundation for hiding the fact that Keiko is ill.
September, 1997: Foundation holds news conference to clarify their version of events. Foundation says OCA put padlocks on the chain link fence to prevent the Foundation from changing the filters. The Aquarium says: “the Foundation delayed replacing them (filters) because of financial constraints.”(?) Feud with Aquarium actually steps up plans to move Keiko to Iceland.
October, 1997: Keiko recognizes more than 50 hand signals, including one – arms reaching forward, index fingers pointing – that means “Do anything you want, as long as you didn't already do it.” His record is 38 behaviors with no repeats. Foundation announces that Keiko is almost ready for release. Aquarium requests an independent evaluation of Keiko.
December 5, 1997: Iceland newspaper ‘Morgunbladid’ runs an editorial under the heading ‘Keiko home’ which concludes: “The return of Keiko would be a delightful adventure while it would be interesting to see how he would fare in his home tracts.”
January 8, 1998: Arbitrator gives OCA responsibility for daily feeding, training and rehabilitation work. However, the Foundation will direct that work. Since summer, all that work has been performed by the Foundation staff. The underlying friction is not resolved, accelerating plans to move Keiko to a sea pen in the North Atlantic.
January 30, 1998: A six-member panel of marine mammal veterinarians and pathologists assembled by the USDA announces Keiko is healthy and exhibiting normal behavior patterns of a killer whale. Two veterinarians from Iceland subsequently examine Keiko and find: “This condition (skin lesions) is known to occur in wild and captive whales and is not considered a health challenge to Keiko.” Jim McBain, a panelist and director of veterinary medicine for Sea World in San Diego, says a companion whale should be a priority.
February, 1998: Craig McCaw, clad in a wetsuit, meets Keiko face to face in his Newport pool, an experience he describes as mystical. “The high point of my entire life spiritually is spending time with Keiko in the pool,” he said. “It's almost like dealing with an extraterrestrial, having a relationship with an intelligent being on a very personal level.” During their close encounter, the billionaire and the killer whale played a game of Keiko's choosing. Keiko invited McCaw onto his back, then wiggled to see how much effort it would take to gently bump his newfound human friend off. Keiko's playfulness struck a chord with McCaw, famed for staging office squirt-gun fights and posing as a pizza delivery man in phone calls to business associates. McCaw says his larger vision is the creation of a world-class program that would rehabilitate captive and injured marine mammals for return to the wild. McCaw said even if Keiko decides to play every day in the ocean and return every day to be fed by his human caregivers, he will consider it a great victory.
Spring, 1998: Live-fish program resumes. In the evenings, trainers often roll a big-screen TV up to the window and show him a video. Keiko's tastes tend to “lots of action,” “For some reason, he liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “He watched the whole thing,” but turned his back on "Free Willy." The Foundation unveils the design of a floating pen for Keiko that will be installed in a North Atlantic bay or fjord to serve as his new home.
Mark Trimm, former whale trainer for the Miami Seaquarium who worked with Keiko for a year and a half announces that “Keiko is a psychological mess,” who “just doesn’t have what it takes, plain and simple.” Trimm says: "He could essentially infect the wild population of killer whales around the Iceland area and wipe them out.” “He’s the bottom of the barrel as a candidate for release.” He says his fellow trainers used to share a grim joke. Keiko, they would say, was their golden retriever - more like a house pet than a whale. “Let’s not put the animal’s life in jeopardy.” Most who work with the whale say he's far from capable of surviving in the wild, primarily because he doesn't know how to hunt.
March 31, 1998: “I don't think it's fair and humane to the animal to try this operation just to make a few people happy,” says Brad Andrews of Sea World.
April, 1998: Keiko is eating live steelhead weighing from three to 12 pounds, eating up to half of his daily intake of food. A 250 foot long, 100 foot wide, 30-foot deep bay pen is built for Keiko. The components of his new pen are shipped to Iceland.
June, 1998: Iceland's chief veterinary officer examines Keiko in Newport and says tests showed there were no grounds for opposing his return home. According to CNN, the Prime Minister of Iceland, David Oddsson, sanctioned the U.S. government for holding a resident of another country against his will. He demanded that the U.S. Gov't return Keiko to Icelandic waters by Sept. 19 or they will take civil action against the U.S. In September, Keiko's pod will be in the Icelandic region. David Oddsson said that the U.S. abducted Keiko from within a 12 mile radius of Iceland's shore, and that he was abducted as a citizen of Iceland. Brad Andrews of Sea World says it's a mistake to put Keiko back in open waters, even in a pen. “He's going to be in an ocean pen where the weather conditions are ferocious,” he said. “It's cold, it's miserable, it's dark. There's no contact with other whales. It doesn't make a lot of sense,” he says.
June 15, 1998: “We've been misleading these schoolchildren all these years, maybe now's the time to start telling them the truth -- that they should find a companion for him and keep him where he's at,” said Brad Andrews. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums complains to NMFS that the Foundation is using a loophole on exports to send Keiko to Iceland.
June 20, 1998: Klettsvík bay is dredged where Keiko's sea pen will be located to deepen the 8m-deep bay by 2m, involving the removal of some 12,000m˛ of sand and gravel. It cost $58,700, paid by the Westman Islands' Harbour Fund.
September, 1998: Whale watching in Iceland is booming (1996–11 operators and ca 9,700 whale watchers; 1997–13 operators with ca 20,500 whale watchers, 35,000 in 1998). The tourist industry supports the return of Keiko.
September 8, 1998: When the time comes to begin the transport, Keiko goes into the sling as trained without needing to be prompted. Nearly 5,000 people visit the aquarium to see Keiko for the last time before his momentous move. 2,537,000 have seen him since his arrival in January, 1996. Fred Jacobs, vide-president of Busch Entertainment Corp., which operates Sea World, says: “This is an animal that has spent his entire life in the company of human beings. I would think he's an extremely bad candidate for return to the wild.” Sea World's Brad Andrews said Keiko's move is only a feel-good exercise for his handlers and could be harmful to the whale. “I would not be about to risk our animals in that type of situation,” Andrews said, calling the move “just another step in the fantasy.” Alliance director Marilee Menard says “Keiko is a relatively old animal and old animals don’t react well to change or stress.” Patricia Forkan of The HSUS, says “Our hope is that Keiko will make it and that the other orcas will follow.”
September 9, 1998: Thousands of Keiko’s fans and 546 journalists cover Keiko's 8-hour transport by a US Air Force C-17 directly from Newport to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, including two in-air refuelings. Live video is fed to the Ocean Futures web site from the air during Operation Keiko Lift. This is the first time a live video feed is done from a C-17. The plane breaks a wheel strut on landing.
The C-17 Globemaster III used to fly the mission is the only aircraft that can accomplish moving such a large load and deliver it to such a short runway.
As soon as he is immersed, Keiko pumps his flukes to swim clear of the stretcher and immediately dives. He surfaces a full minute later, circling the pool, echolocating and vocalizing excitedly, as if calling out “Who's there?” After 10 minutes of energetically exploring his new home he turns to his human friends perched at the pool's edge. He allows Jen Schorr to scratch him briefly, but seems more interested in the place than the humans. Within 2˝ hours Keiko communicates with a pilot whale that swims into his cove. He is visible to tourists only by two telescopes set up across the bay.
September 11, 1998: Bob Ratliffe, Executive Director of the Foundation says that Keiko is vocalizing like he's never done before – much more than when he was in Oregon.
September 12, 1998: Keiko's activity level is much higher than it was in Oregon. He begins "porpoising," coming smoothly out of the water in a continuous, graceful arc to breathe and slipping immediately beneath the surface again. In the past he often stayed at the surface following a breath. Dr. Cornell is visibly moved by Keiko's response so far. “As a veterinarian, Keiko's medical supervisor and a human being,” he says, pausing to regain his composure, “it can't get any better.” In late September, winds of over 130 mph lash the baypen. Staff and Keiko come through unharmed. Baypen repairs continue through the winter months.
October, 1998: Attendance at the Aquarium is down 35 percent from the same period a year ago.
November, 1998: Foundation spokesperson Diane Hammond reports: “When Keiko's staff engages him, he plays, embellishing wildly on whatever behaviors he is asked to do. For example, when he is asked to do a speed-swim-a normally straightforward lap around the pool, underwater-he does one on his side, instead, with one pectoral flipper upraised. He is asked to spyhop, and he comes out spitting water between his teeth. When asked to waggle both pectoral flippers above water, he blows vigorous underwater bubbles from his blowhole, instead.” Life Magazine carries a four-page spread about Keiko.
Hurricane-force winds, 135-miles-an-hour, pound his sea pen, but Keiko's keepers say he is having a fine time during the storms and feels no ill-effects in his new home. He spyhops to feel the wind, holds his pectoral fins high in the air, and jumps out of water to get sprayed by the salt spray.
March, 1999: Ocean Futures Society is created from a merger between the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute and the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. Live Atlantic salmon have been introduced into Keiko's pen. Indications that he is eating them include that keepers report less fish inside the bay pen and reduced hunger on his part. With deep dives and strong leaps, his posture has changed to more closely resemble that of a wild whale than a captive one trained to behave on cue. He spends far more time below the surface. And his attention – once focused on keepers or admirers – is directed past the nets that contain him to the watery world beyond.
1999: During his first full year back in his native Icelandic waters, Keiko is prepared for his potential reintroduction to the wild. An essential component of his program is moving his attention from above to below the surface of the water (although he's already doing that). In doing so, Keiko depends less on his human caretakers for stimuli and develops greater interest in the surroundings of his natural environment. He is pursuing and possibly snacking on small fish that swim in and out of his net pen.
April, 1999: Two former Sea World trainers are hired as lead consultants. Fieldwork begins on orcas following herring near Vestmannaeyjar. By fall of 2001 approximately 250 are photo-IDed, some are biopsied for DNA samples and acoustic calls are recorded. No field researcher has yet been contacted and none are contacted for advice on Keiko's reintroduction until 2002.
May, 1999: New project leader says the operation to return Keiko to the ocean is not working. New rules are designed to diminish all unnecessary interaction: No eye contact unless Keiko is being asked to do something that furthers his development. No rubdowns or massages just out of affection. And soon, just dead fish piped into the water at meal times instead of hand feedings. Ocean Futures staff goes out to observe groups of killer whales on two occasions. They “hope to implement a photo ID study of the whales.”
July, 1999: Robin Baird trains staff on deploying time-depth recorder tags (TDRs) on wild killer whales, to gather data on their activities. Several orcas are photo-identified and vocalizations are recorded.
July, 1999: Dateline-NBC runs a segment on Keiko that emphasizes his supposed inability to forage.
September, 1999: Keiko is eating nearly half of his daily feed as live fish. The other half is thrown into the water, not fed by hand, to discourage Keiko from associating humans with food. Informed of Keiko's use of Icelandic vocalizations by a journalist, a call by Ocean Futures staff to Woods Hole reveals that Keiko “still speaks North Atlantic killer whale.” Blood tests show he is still free of pathogens.
November, 1999: Keiko is trained with indirect reinforcement called “Differential Reinforcement of Alternative behavior”or “DRA.” Trainers watch him closely and look for expected behaviors such as swimming, diving, and interacting with natural stimuli, at which point primary reinforcement (food) is provided. These occurrences allow DRA to be applied without “direct” interaction or training sessions, increasing the frequency of desired behaviors and ultimately Keiko’s independence. “DRA is a critical component to Keiko’s rehabilitation.” This is said to be required “to teach Keiko how to be a wild whale.”
Spring, 2000: Keiko begins behavior modification program to prepare him for reintroduction. He learns gate training to provide access from the bay pen into Klettsvik Bay, and eventually into the open ocean off Vestmannaeyjar. Keiko learns it all rapidly, and also masters tone recall training, renewed live fish training, learning to be led by boat to the open ocean and performing open ocean “walks.”
February, 2000: Keiko seems right at home in the 80 to 90 mph winds and storm currents.
March 3, 2000: Keepers open a gate in the whale's sea pen and invite him to explore the 800,000-square-foot bay, anchored by a 910-foot net. Keiko gets his first taste of freedom.
From: Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons
Chapter 8 - The Mean Season
The monotony of watching sometimes hours for an opportunity to "catch" Keiko acting the part of a wild bull killer whale were no more. Now, we found ourselves hiding in packs around the bay pen, each of us interested in when he would come out again, where he would go, how far he might venture. We each wanted to be the one that might stretch his territory to new heights in space and time. Day by day, Keiko gave us more material with which to work. Eventually it became commonplace for him to travel so far from the pen that he appeared as if a small dolphin in the distance. The sight was intoxicating.
May, 2000: In Washington, DC a spokesperson with the US State Department revealed to conservationists, attending a meeting about whales and whaling, that Keiko the Killer Whale, from Free Willy fame and who millions of people have supported his release back into the wild, is in imminent danger from dynamite explosions scheduled to begin in the Icelandic fiord site which has become his temporary home. Negotiations with the Harbor Master and local Icelandic Community Officials for a stay have failed. He is in immediate danger.
Ultimately Keiko adapted to the enormous bay more quickly than we did. At times, three of us would station ourselves on three distant corners of the bay pen, and yet it could take fifteen minutes or more to locate Keiko within the bay. Truthfully, our inability to supervise Keiko in the bay was the root of much discomfort on our part and therefore we continued to separate him back into the small area of the bay pen each night.
We overcame this insecurity once we recognized that Keiko's happenstance run-ins with the anchor lines were minimal and decreasing. The irony of our own fear of the unknown paralleling with that of Keiko's seemed a fitting reminder of the complex forces at work on both Keiko and the release team. As we finally relaxed into our role, Keiko began spending almost all of his available time in the relative vastness of the bay He only came into the pen when called in or during heavy storms.
Statement by Ocean Futures Society in Light of Planned Demolition and Construction Work in Klettsvik Bay, Iceland
May 6, 2000: Trainers lead Keiko from his enclosure in Klettsvik Bay on his first “ocean walks.” Handlers had planned to wait a while longer before taking Keiko on his first walk, but their schedule was pushed forward by construction work near Keiko's pen. Construction crews blast dynamite underwater that could severely damage Keiko's hearing. An aircraft flies over the waters prior to the outing to see if other whales were in the vicinity, because at this point in Keiko's training such contact is not considered desirable by his handlers. No whales are in sight and the green light is given.
"Santa Barbara, CA -- A number of rumors have emerged in recent days regarding planned harbor construction work near Klettsvik Bay, Iceland and its potential effect on Keiko, who currently resides in the bay. Following are the facts of the situation.
"On April 6th 2000, Ocean Futures Society learned that construction of a pier would occur in Vestmannaeyjar Harbor as soon as April 15. The construction would involve blasting and pile driving at a distance less than half a mile from Keiko's bay enclosure. At this distance, the shock waves and low-frequency vibrations from the construction work could, in Ocean Futures Society's judgment, pose a risk of physical harm to Keiko.
"Upon discovering the construction plans, Ocean Futures Society entered into immediate negotiations with local officials to secure a delay in the harbor improvements work. Officials at Vestmannaeyjar did agree to a short-term delay, but indicated that work would need to go forward as early as May 25. Ocean Futures Society is also actively engaged in discussion with the Icelandic and U.S. Governments on the best strategy for safeguarding Keiko's well-being as construction and blasting work gets underway.
Ocean Futures Society has been actively engaged in Keiko's rehabilitation and preparation for reintroduction to the wild since his relocation to Iceland in September, 1998. This process has gone extremely well, and Keiko is, in the judgment of his trainers and caretakers, ready to take further steps toward reintroduction. Keiko is eating up to 20% live fish, responds without fail to a recall signal, and has followed a boat on command for up to 11 nautical miles. His health is excellent.
Ocean Futures Society is now assessing all possible options for protecting Keiko over the coming weeks. While no final decisions have been made, one option would be to take Keiko out of his enclosed bay on an "ocean walk", during which he would follow a designated boat to the open sea -- a measure for which he has undergone intensive training in recent weeks. Keiko's trainers have expressed confidence that his physical stamina and willingness to follow a boat mean that the risks of such a walk are slight, and may be far outweighed by the risks to Keiko's health should he be in the harbor during blasting. "Ocean walks" have been planned from the start as a key stepping stone in the reintroduction process.
During such a walk, Keiko would be led out of the enclosed bay that has served as his home for the past 17 months and then back to his bay enclosure. The duration of the walk, should this option be chosen, would be long enough to permit the harbor authorities to complete their blasting work and pile driving. Ocean Futures Society's only priority in Iceland is Keiko's well-being. All actions will be taken with this sole concern in mind.
May 25, 2000:
Ocean Futures Society announces that Keiko successfully completed his first open ocean walk. For the first time since his capture more than decades ago, Keiko swam in open ocean. He followed a lead boat exactly as he was trained for 2 hours and 21 minutes covering a distance of roughly 8 nautical miles. His trainers judged the exercise a total success.
June 7, 2000: Jeff Foster, director of research and operations for Ocean Futures, says sometimes the whale will swim as far as a half-mile away from the boat, disappearing from the keepers' view for six or seven minutes. “Your heart stops when that happens,” he said. “We're walking this fine line. We want to encourage him to go out further, but we don't want to encourage him to go too far.”
July, 2000: Keiko approaches a pod of orcas for the first time, then turns and swims rapidly away from them, and away from the walk boat, spending the next 10 hours alone, away from boats and away from the areas where he had been taken on walks over the previous few months.
Ocean Futures, July 25, 2000: For the first time, Keiko just recently spotted something he hasn't seen since childhood: wild whales. "We did get close to wild whales. When we got there, the only grouping that was close enough to our location for Keiko to interact with them, in any way, were two mothers and two calves. And when they got quite close to one another, actually, the mothers and the calves moved off in one direction and Keiko in the other direction," says Vinick. Some day soon, Keiko may swim off and never come back. His caretakers say that's precisely the plan.
Summer, 2000: Keiko encounters wild whales on more than a dozen occasions but interacts with them only about five times. He stays out at sea up to three days at a time and completes more than 500 miles of open ocean walks. Ocean Futures asks for 20 percent of ticket proceeds from whale watch boats. The boats used to linger a little ways away from the bay - now they speed right on by.
And that's what it is. We're now at the point where Keiko is driving the project more and more. Because once we're out there on a walk, where we' re out there looking for wild whales - then he and the wild whales are in charge," says Vinick. If Keiko goes free, backers of this project have said privately that they want to do it again, with another captive whale.
Keiko's backers have made an offer for Lolita, from the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is middle-aged. She was captures as a young adult, instead of an infant. She's held in the smallest whale tank in America.
August 15, 2000: Foster says some days Keiko eats 100 percent of his diet in live fish, which indicates he “might be capable of feeding himself at sea.”
September, 2000: A skeptical multipage feature on Keiko appears in international editions of Time magazine, saying Keiko’s trainers say he is unable to feed himself on his own.
October 8, 2000: Keiko spent a successful summer re-acquainting himself with the open ocean. He made 40 trips outside his pen, completing more than 500 miles of open ocean walks. On more than a dozen occasions Keiko encountered wild whales, and interacted with them directly on nearly half a dozen occasions. He was able to stay out in the open ocean environment for up to three days at a time. Nevertheless, London Daily Telegraph announces "Free Willy" whale will never go back to wild. Trainers maintain rigorous husbandry procedures.
May, 2001: Keiko begins ocean walks for 2001. Ocean Futures reports that: “What we have learned is that Keiko can do just fine in the open ocean.” Two boats and a helicopter are used to closely monitor Keiko.
June-July, 2001: Throughout the summer, almost every day at sea, Keiko interacts with wild killer whales. After more than 60 trips out of the bay this summer, his chaperones say that although Keiko shows much more interest in wild orcas than he did in 2000, his interactions are generally brief and he returns to the vicinity of the boat after a few minutes. Keiko and wild whales approach each other several times a day, then spend a few minutes swimming together or chasing each other, apparently playfully. On one occasion, Keiko was moving in and out among three pods for a period of six to seven hours. At no time during his contact with other whales has there been any evidence of aggressive behavior, either by Keiko or the wild orcas. Staff say he still does not forage on his own.
Naomi Rose also said - "Robin Friday, Mark Simmons, and others would grow nervous whenever Keiko demonstrated too much independence on his "walks." If he wandered too far from the tracking boat, they would call him back with underwater tones. Despite the tracking tag on his fin, they seemed afraid to "lose" him, even though in many ways, that was the whole idea. Naomi now suspected that Keiko’s trainers did not want him going off on his own. Howie had been prescient in the warning: this was a subtle form of sabotoge. Robin and Mark were training him in the way the navy did its dolphins-to follow a boat and remain focused on it, so they did not go AWOL.”
Early August, 2001: Summer research and year-round, 24-hour care cost about U.S. $3 million/year. McCaw's contribution is greatly reduced. Ocean Futures says that to continue the release effort they'll have to raise funds from the public. They say they're spending as much as $360,000 a month on his care and they're afraid they cannot afford to keep him there anymore. Keiko's crew say it's not likely he'll join a pod of other killer whales this summer, so they're looking for a place to move him.
August, 2001: Keiko strays as far as 35 miles from the caretakers who accompany him by boat at sea. He initiates contact with wild killer whales on numerous occasions and spends hours at a time swimming with them. Staff track the whale by helicopter using a radio tag. His longest period on his own is six days with a couple of stretches of two to three days of complete separation from the walk boat. Ocean Futures announces that it is unlikely they will be able to maintain a ship, a helicopter and the number of researchers they were able to dedicate to Keiko's reintroduction to date, and must evaluate how effective they can be with fewer assets and must locate additional support.
Robin Friday said - "Keiko is back where he belongs, in the very waters from which he was plucked almost two decades ago.
Thus, new rules designed to diminish all unnecessary interaction: No eye contact unless Keiko is being asked to do something that furthers his development. No rubdowns or massages just out of affection. And soon, just dead fish piped into the water at mealtimes instead of hand-feedings.
"It's a transition for the staff as much as it is for Keiko," Friday says. "It's like preparing your child to go out on his own. You've got to cut the strings."
November 6, 2001: New York Times headlines: “Keiko Makes It Clear: His ‘Free Willy’ Was Just a Role.” “The sad fact is, it looks as if the world's mostly closely watched experiment in returning a cetacean to the wild is a bust.” Richard O'Barry, who has devoted 30 years to freeing cetaceans, argues that the “Free Willy” project was doomed from the start because: “They're still training him. He's in captivity even when he's out at sea. He's psychologically dependent on his trainers.”
Keiko must move soon because a salmon farm, which produces lots of waste, will be constructed on his bay. Ocean Futures looks at bays in Ireland, Scotland and the Orkney Islands, but the most likely choices are two Icelandic towns that already offer whale-watching: Husavik, on the north coast, or Keflavik, near the national airport.
November 9, 2001: Ocean Futures says financial times are tough for the project that to date has cost an estimated $23 million. Keiko's future might include greeting tourists somewhere in Iceland. “We have to find a formula that has revenue,” said Charles Vinick, director of Ocean Futures. At the project's peak, there were 25 people working in Iceland.
Fall, Winter, 2001: The stock value of Nextel, Craig McCaw's telecommunications venture, falls from a high of more than eighty dollars a share to around ten.
March, 2002: McCaw phases out his financial support. With vastly reduced funds, reintegration attempts will be scaled down - and might have to be halted altogether, in which case Keiko would probably be kept on a more permanent basis in an Icelandic harbour. “We used helicopters, a large ship, things that really enabled us to spend months out at sea in difficult conditions,” said Vinick. “We won't have that same equipment now.”
Spring, 2002: Direction of Keiko's release transfers from Ocean Futures Society to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). All 14 American staff leave the project and are replaced by HSUS employees, led by Dr. Naomi Rose. It's the first time a scientist familiar with free-ranging orca behavior is involved in the project. Wendy McCaw Foundation donates $400,000 to the effort.
May 23, 2002: “Thanks to genetics, we now know that Keiko has been relating to orca families that are part of the community he came from,” said Ocean Futures’ Vinick. “That's a huge relief. Now we just have to be patient. At the beginning we thought Keiko might go off with other orcas as soon as he met them, but now we know that he's involved in a delicate dance that may take years to complete.”
July 7, 2002: Keiko is escorted by boat from his sea pen in Vestmannaeyjar, following a visit from Iceland's Prime Minister David Oddsson. It is his first ‘walk’ of the 2002 season.
July 11, 2002: Four days later, at 2 a.m., Keiko separates from the boat and approaches a pod of about 80-90 wild orcas.
July 15, 2002: Keiko briefly returns to his sea pen and is led back out the next morning.
July 27, 2002: Keiko is photographed swimming among other orcas and seems to be interacting with and among them for extended periods of time.
July 30, 2002: Keiko is again observed visually with whales. Dive data from the satellite tag sensors shows that he is diving deeper than ever, with some dives over 75 meters. After physical contact at the surface, Keiko swam away, seeking out human company on the tracking boat. He begins his trek across the Atlantic.
August 9, 2002: Radio tags show that Keiko is in an area teeming with marine life and filled with herring and blue whiting. Attempts to find him by aircraft are unsuccessful.
August 20, 2002: The HSUS says Keiko has now spent 45 days in the wild. Each day marks another milestone in Keiko’s quest for freedom. Keiko is 200 miles northeast of the Faroe Islands, 190 miles from the closest part of Norway and 150 miles north of the Shetlands. This is 45 miles away from his position yesterday.
Since 1994 when Free Willy, the movie, was released, 22 orcas have died in captivity, all of them at a young age.
August 21, 2002: Jeff Foster and seven other former Ocean Futures staff send letter of concern to Marine Mammal Commission, saying: “In our opinion, the ability to intervene using the "walk" boat and return Keiko to the bay pen enclosure has been critical in the past. In order to ensure the safety and well being of the animal, we feel it is necessary to closely monitor his behavior and have the ability to intervene if necessary.” “In short, as of the end of the 2001 reintroduction season none of us felt that the animal was prepared to survive in dependently without supplemental food.”
This statement is made after the discovery of Springer and Luna, two juvenile orcas who were able to forage successfully at the age of one year or less. Foster was instrumental in relocating Springer to her family after at least a year’s absence. Such is the power of an industry-sponsored interpretation.
September 1, 2002: Keiko, after spending most of the summer free in the North Atlantic, unexpectedly enters Skaalvik, a small Norwegian harbor and interacts with members of the public. According to daily satellite tracking reports, he has travelled a minimum of 870 miles, usually about 50-60 miles a day. He is exhausted and remains stationary for 18 hours.
The HSUS and The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation field team in Norway immediately start Keiko on a regimen of antibiotics; they also begin feeding him, and then lead him on two ocean walks to get him moving again. Norwegian government establishes regulations on September 5 forbidding the public to come within 50 meters of Keiko, a regulation that dramatically curtails public interactions with the orca. A blood test administered on September 8 reveals that Keiko's white blood cell count was moderately high, an indication of a minor illness, stress, exercise, or excitement. Officials with the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries issue statements assuring the public that they have no intention of harming Keiko and that they will work cooperatively to assist the orca. Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko's veterinarian since 1996, examines Keiko and finds that: “After 60 days at sea and traveling more than one thousand miles, Keiko is strong and does not appear to have lost any weight whatsoever. There can no longer be any doubt that Keiko has foraged successfully.”
An 8 year old girl comes to Halsa to play the theme from Free Willy to Keiko on her harmonica. It is the only tune she knows, and Keiko responds with focused attention, as if he were still in the movie.
September 12, 2002: Miami Seaquarium applies for a permit to capture Keiko and bring him to their tank in Miami, which is smaller than the tank he was saved from in Mexico City. The application is rejected on the grounds that Norway has jurisdiction and has stated flatly that Keiko will not be captured because he is just fine, and they don’t believe orcas should be held in captivity anyway.
November 7, 2002: Keiko is led to Taknes, just six miles from Skaalvik. The new location is ice-free, has plenty of fish, is along orca travel routes and is more remote – something they hope will reduce crowds of admirers. Keiko's caretakers will live nearby in a house fixed up for them by a local farmer. Plans are to lead Keiko out for walks to build up his stamina, and to feed him when he wants to be fed. Otherwise, he is free to roam the North Atlantic whenever he wishes. The bay has been sealed off to boat traffic and the shore will be fenced and decorated with posters about Keiko's life.
Keiko is free.
Will Keiko once again forage on his own and travel with wild whales as he did this summer? No one can answer that question yet. His experiences this winter as the wild orcas return will be yet another lesson learned from this reintroduction endeavor-and not just a lesson about Keiko.
As The HSUS's Paul Irwin says, "The Keiko Project is not about one animal. It's a research project designed to tell us whether we can return a long-term captive marine mammal to the wild. What we are learning from Keiko's amazing odyssey will help other animals."
January 24, 2003: AN ABC 20/20 story on Keiko repeats the same old cynicism from ten years ago, despite the actual fact that Keiko is now free and fully capable to roam the North Atlantic, and could very well join up with his family at any time. The intro says:
"That tidy ending was Hollywood fiction. The reality has been a costly and, some say, misguided science project, and it's where our story picks up."
No kidding. ABC has not progressed in their thinking in ten years, even though Keiko has proven he is competent to take care of himself in the ocean, something all the park industry and media critics said would be impossible. It's a demonstration of the power of false myth, when it's reinforced at every turn. The true story has almost never been told. ABC said on 20/20:
It was an outright rejection of six years of rehabilitation, as if Keiko had never left the amusement park. The $20 million project had failed. Keiko was a tourist attraction again, and, it seemed, would always be a movie whale, not a wild one.
That means don't even think about releasing Lolita or Corky or Kshamenk or any of the other slaves to entertainment. 20/20 says they "disregarded the laws of nature." They said Keiko "didn't even know how to catch a live fish," although he has caught and eaten live fish ever since they were first offered to him in 1997. Sure, he brought some back to the trainers, because he's a social whale, and that's civilized behavior for an orca.
ABC said releasing Keiko is "about bleeding-heart animal lovers going too far," ignoring the immense leaps in scientific knowledge learned from the fact that Keiko traveled over 1,000 miles across the Atlantic, feeding himself all the way, after 23 years of confinement. That's a fantastic accomplishment and a scientific breakthrough, and it shows what all the other captives are capable of, but nobody is telling that story, so the media knows only what the critics have been saying for ten years.
Dave Philips tried to say that Keiko did not starve on his 1,200-mile swim from Iceland to Norway last summer. But that was followed immediately with "And he's still clinging to his original dream." The whole spin was that releasing an orca is just an animal activist's crazy fantasy, and that's what they heard across America.
December 12, 2003: Keiko's life has ended.
Twenty-four years after he was wrapped in a net and stolen from his home and family as a mere yearling…ten years after the owners of a Mexican theme park realized their star attraction was dying despite all the love and care they could give him…nine years after a children’s movie plucked heart strings and revealed the desperate plight of its namesake, and a whale biologist presented a plan for safely returning Keiko to his birth waters…eight years after a telecom billionaire made freeing Keiko his personal challenge…six years after Keiko arrived at his spacious custom pool in Oregon…four years after he once again tasted his ancestral Icelandic home waters, Keiko, contrary to torrents of disbelief that still rage on, was a free whale.
Starting in mid-July he easily swam 1,000 miles across the stormy North Atlantic to a Norwegian fjord and found human company. We can only speculate on why he didn’t stay with the orcas he was last seen among in July, but four primary reasons stand out. First, he may never have met up with his close family, and we know that acceptance does not occur with just any orcas, but only with close relatives. Second, his family may have all been captured or have perished in capture operations. Third, he was out of shape for the 100 mile/day marathon jogs that are typical of oceanic orcas. Keiko was essentially locked in a basement for over twenty years, then let out briefly to walk around the block a few times, but the stamina and strength required for maintaining proximity with his cousins calls for some serious workouts. He gave himself a good one: Six weeks of 40-60 mile/day runs while diving regularly to 40 meters and pursuing and catching all the fish he could eat on the way. Without a doubt he ran a personal best and was in by far the best shape of his life.
Another possible reason why Keiko did not rejoin his family is that it takes time to regain the trust of the clan. Just having the right genes doesn’t automatically make you a member. Even knowing the right calls in the right dialect doesn't instantly make up for two decades' absence. Orca families are built on trust, love and loyalty, and as we learned from Springer, the little two-year-old calf reunited with her family after a year’s absence, you have to show you mean it and wait to be welcomed before you get a warm embrace. Plus, Keiko may not have found his closest family just yet. Nobody knows how orca family systems work in the Atlantic and Keiko needed to look around, or even ask around for a while, before he'd meet up with close kin.
After Keiko wandered into a Norwegian harbor and found some folks to play with, his veterinarian measured his waistline and found he hadn't lost an inch. Some Norwegians tossed him some fish and he ate them. He wasn't begging, just interacting. When Springer bounded out of her net pen to rejoin her family she grabbed a fish and held it crosswise in her mouth. It appeared that she didn't eat it, she took it to her family. Sharing food seems to have ritual meaning for orcas. A young girl played the theme from Free Willy to Keiko on her harmonica and he seemed to love it. He wasn't begging then either.