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Keiko Killerwale: Free Willy only came free after 19 years

In the box office hit "Free Willy" Keiko could spectacularly jump into freedom. In real life, this was the beginning of the tragic story of his captivity. Only after 19 years, Keiko, the orca, may see the ocean for the first time. How much "orca" does he still have left inside of himself after all this time?

Orca Keiko (Free Willy Star) in the underwater-hold of the "Free Willy Keiko Foundation"
Picture by T. Micke

Keiko lured more than a million visitors into the "Oregon Coast Aquarium" in Newport (USA). 19 of the 21 years of his life, he spent in captivity. During this time he was part of a film, where a whale was mistreated by a couple of down-and-dirty theme park gangsters. But with the help of a little boy, he could escape his misery and return to the ocean. Ironic is that the life Keiko was saved from in the movie, is the one he had to live after the film was shot. No happy ending.

The film giants Warner made 76 million dollars with Keiko and "Free Willy". It will cost the independent "Free Willy Keiko Foundation" 10 million dollars to move the problem whale to his home waters at he coast of Iceland. First he will live in a special outdoor enclosure the size of a soccer field. If Keiko can get used to those almost life real conditions, he will be released into freedom.

The ironic part is that the details on this whale drama are much more exciting than those of the hypocritical movie "Free Willy" that had everybody reaching for tissues. By the way, in the second and third part the producers were satisfied with mechanical whale dummies. (Why not from the beginning?)

In their natural habitat, these heavy, muscled and majestic creatures are feared hunters. That is what provides an attraction to the visitors: sweaty hands, high pulse, raised neckhair and a queasy feeling as the 9 meter long orca floats towards the glass panel.

During his captivity, Keiko had degenerated to an underwater puppet. He had become an ailing, pitiful and helpless creature that had to be coddled up like an infant. A dozen caretakers had to gain control over underweight, amyotrophia, chronic rashes, mycosis, and intestinal parasites with antibiotics and vitamins. Keiko can already stay under water for 17 minutes again. Before it were barely 3!!!

He now has got to learn how to hunt again because since his diet consisted of thawed salmon steaks, squids and herring filets for years, he doesn't really know what to do with these slippery fish whizzing around in panic.

Or like Dianne Hammond of the "Free Willy Foundation" said in an interview: "Keiko was disgusted of the fidgeting fish at the beginning, I guess as much as we would be if we would have to eat an alive earthworm."

As soon as Keiko has moved to his new home near Vestmanneayjar, exciting times are lying ahead of him: small animals are able to swim through the coarse meshes of the enclosure and for the first time in twenty years, he will be able to hear the sounds and voices of his conspecifics and prey.

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© A report by Tobias Micke (13-09-98) – Contact