Keiko’s incredible journey ends – December 13th 2003

Keiko’s incredible journey ends

We have very sad news.

Keiko, the orca star of the film Free Willy and the first ever captive orca to be returned to life in the ocean, died yesterday in Norway. His end was sudden and unexpected. Just a week earlier, blood tests had shown Keiko to be in normal good health. However, during the day before his death Keiko appeared lethargic. He did not eat on his last day and his breathing became erratic. In the early evening of December 12th Keiko swam to the shore of Taknes Bay and died. The immediate cause of his death was probably pneumonia.

Keiko lived for 27 years, a normal life span for male orcas whose average longevity is about 29 years. His life, however, was by no means normal. Captured in Icelandic waters in 1979 when he was not even two years old, Keiko was initially shipped to a captive facility in Canada and then sold to another in Mexico City where he performed for crowds at an amusement park. After being “discovered” by Hollywood and becoming a movie star, Keiko attained celebrity status as the most famous whale in the world. Once it was realised that reality did not match the successful Free Willy happy ending and that the “star” had been left to languish once more in an unhealthy, small pool, children around the world insisted that Keiko be given a chance to regain his freedom. After much negotiation on his behalf, he was finally shipped in 1996 to a cold sea water tank in Oregon. It was the first time in 17 years that Keiko had felt the soothing effects of natural ocean water. Terribly underweight when he arrived, Keiko slowly regained his health and vigor and by 1998 it was felt he was ready for the next stage on his road to freedom. He was flown to Iceland by the US Air Force and placed in a sea pen. Now he was truly back in his home waters. In the following several summers Keiko made tentative and eventually extensive contacts with wild orcas, but he probably never encountered his immediate family and did not remain with the wild orcas he met. We will never know why but it is possible that his family had been decimated by the extensive captures of the 1970s and ‘80s. In the summer of 2002 Keiko left Icelandic waters and swam by himself nearly 1200 kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean to Norway. Despite having been reliant on humans for food and comfort almost his entire life he somehow survived for over 50 days, feeding himself along the way. When he was discovered off the coast of Norway he was in wonderful shape and warmly welcomed, especially by children. But the over-attention of people created problems for Keiko’s rehabilitation. A local government offered Keiko a secluded bay in a sheltered fjord as a home base from which he was free to roam. Keiko has remained in the vicinity of Taknes Bay for the past year. He has been cared for by a small dedicated staff and taken on “walks” pending the arrival of wild orcas which would give him renewed opportunities to socialise with his own kind. Sadly, Keiko’s death came too soon for this to happen.

Keiko will be missed by millions of people around the world, especially children, and his remarkable story will be told and retold. Unfortunately, it is already being distorted and misrepresented in many media reports. Some of the errors are relatively trivial (e.g. incorrectly stating that Keiko died 10 years earlier than is normal) but others are serious and need correction. The most serious error is the claim by the captive industry that the entire project was a “failure”. It was not. Rather, it was a resounding success in almost every conceivable way. Keiko died a free orca, in the ocean on his own terms. Had he remained in Mexico City Keiko would have died long ago. Instead, just look where he took us. In our opinion, even a taste of freedom is worth a long journey for captives that are utterly deprived of choices. Keiko raised the profile of orcas and other whales to hitherto unknown heights, and along the way did an amazing job of raising human consciousness to a point where it is now widely agreed that whales and dolphins should not be caged or otherwise abused. That job remains to be completed and in Keiko’s memory we will carry on.

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