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Keiko: "Lifelong" for an Orca

Visiting the exclusive residence of the aged film star Keiko in front of Iceland's coast. Here he has been living a life like a goldfish for six years



Free-Willy star orca Keiko while jumping in his retiree outdoor enclosure ahead of the island Heimaey near Iceland
Picture by T. Micke

A whole bay is owned by Keiko at the port entrance of the island Heimaey, a few kilometers ahead of Iceland's south coast. In summer sheep graze at the cliff line above the nature's aquarium and a million varicolored parrots bread on the cliffs of the volcanic island. Now in winter, days are very short indeed and the raised water drops already within minutes freeze into ice on the cliffs. However the sunsets are picturesque and when the cool, shadowy daylight gives way to the starry sky, nearly every night the polar light is flickering on the horizon.

Keiko, being used to people since his childhood and growing up in confinement, could be happy here in his Atlantic luxury residence. Every other retiree, who doesn't have something against frosty sea water and cold fish for breakfast, would be probably. Only the 24 years old orca is not able to say what he wants, unfortunately.

Of course, if keeper Stephen Claussen, knowing Keiko since twenty years is stepping on the yellow-black swimming platform and asks the old circus whale with a codfish filet in his hand, if he is feeling well, then Keiko brings about a frenetic nodding with his head, in a way that water splashes into all directions. And when showing a hand signal, the heavy colossus jumps through the air with a lightness of a dolphin. He wiggles with his tail and like a remote-controlled torpedo is drawing aft-loops across the bay. But what does that say about the inner life of an experienced performer, whose family belongs to the cleverest of the planet.

At the age of two years Keiko was fished out of the same inshore waters, in which he makes his round again today. After 13 piteous years in divers aqua shows of Canada and Mexico, he was brought to Hollywood for the take of the two-parts movie "Free Willy", for then to be rescued peaky, with skin diseases and breathing problems from the "Keiko-Foundation" after more years of shows in Mexico.

At that time the US-Magazine "Life" made the tantalization of the whale public with a reportage, to shake awake animal-loving people. American children donated their saving, only to make a Hollywood happy end possible for Keiko: the leap into liberty, which he was allowed to demonstrate for a pail full of fish at the end of his movie career in front of the cameras.

22 million US-Dollar – one should consider thinking about this amount for one second – was the cost of the project "Free Keiko" until today. A sum, which – how much animal-loving you ever are – let's a doubt arise concerning the sense of this case. Keiko was flown out via Jumbo jet, first into a rehabilitation center, then into his new, old home in front of Iceland.


Since January 7th 1996 a six headed international team of divers, biologists and keepers care about the oceanic mammal everyday. And last summer one undertook trips to the open sea with helicopter escort to unite Keiko with his fellows - in vain. At the end Keiko followed the small fish trawler like a small loyal dog back into his net-fenced off bay: Either the Hollywood whale has too many airs and graces for the simple living Iceland orcas and just feels better in human hands, or the "foreign, aged man" does simply not fit into the common tight family bond of herd animals.

And if one would just leave Keiko on his own, to use the million of bounties for other needy people and animals? Stephen Claussen denies: "We are already happy that Keiko eats fresh fishes now. At the very beginning he was uncannily sickened by it. And then he would probably sometime end in the ship's screw of the fishery armada. Nobody taught him about dangers like that." – Since especially after September 11 in 2001 bounties for the whale run short, one thinks again of employing Keiko in a show aquarium near Reykjavik as an "Ambassador of the Sea" where he should earn his own daily bread...

One can unfortunately turn the story of Keiko around and around, there's always a bad flavor that stays. Because whether his complicated, stagy life deserves the subtitle "Lifelong Friend of Men" in the trailer or rather "Lifelong for a Philanthropist", maybe that is not even known by Keiko himself anymore by now.


Editorial note: Keiko died nearly two years after this article in December 2003 in front of Iceland's coast because of pneumonia.


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© A report by Tobias Micke (06-01-02) – Contact