Keiko – The World’s Most Famous Killer Whale

Keiko was the most famous killer whale of all time. Captured in Icelandic waters as a calf in 1979, Keiko was sold to a Canadian marine theme park before being transferred to a similar park in Mexico. When in this theme park Keiko was chosen to star in the 1993 film Free Willy. The film told the story of a young boy who befriends a captive killer whale (the Willy of the title) and (spoiler alert) helps Willy escape when the owner of the marine park hatches a plot to kill Willy to claim on an insurance policy. The film had a $20 million budget and yet grossed over $150million worldwide, making it a huge success which spawned three sequels of declining quality (the last of which was a straight-to-DVD release in 2010) and there was even an animated series based on the films.

Keiko in captivity

Keiko pictured in captivity.

However, the impact of the original 1993 film saw an upsurge in international calls for the welfare of captive killer whales to be improved, specifically for Keiko who was back performing in captivity. The success of the film led to many calling for Keiko – the name means ‘lucky one’ in Japanese – to be released in real life. These calls were strengthened when it was revealed that the Mexican theme park was holding Keiko in terrible conditions – his aquarium was far too small having originally been designed for dolphins, disease had left him covered in sores and warts and the water Keiko lived in was reported pumped in from the mains supply and had salt added. Plans were made to rehabilitate Keiko with the eventual aim being to re-introduce him into the wild in his native waters of Iceland. However, a lifetime of captivity meant that this would be no easy undertaking as Keiko would need years of training to have any chance of adapting to the wild, and it was unknown if wild pods would ever accept Keiko. Public opinion was again spiked following the release of Free Willy 2 in 1995. Although this film did not actually feature Keiko (a series of other killer whales, archive footage and species effects were used instead) the end credits featured information asking for donations to raise money to help rehabilitate Keiko. As well as this American billionaire Craig McCaw became involved, making an initial $2million donation as well as further financial support.

Craig McCaw

American telecoms billionaire Craig McCaw.

Eventually a $7million rehabilitation facility was built at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Keiko was moved there in 1996. This facility provided Keiko with much improved conditions and by 1997 he was putting on weight and his health was improving. Keiko was taught how to catch wild fish and the plans for his release were accelerated, although there was still much concern over how he would cope with a full reintroduction into the wild. In particular critics claimed that a killer whale which had spent over a decade being fed dead fish would be incapable of catching the required quantity of live fish to survive. Despite the concerns the plans for Keiko’s release continued. A purpose built facility was commissioned in Iceland with the plan being to rehabilitate Keiko there and then release him back into the waters where he was originally captured. However, this would be no easy undertaking as the cost of creating the facility and keeping Keiko there until he was ready for release would be immense, and even transporting Keiko was costly as a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft had to be used to transport Keiko.


Keiko, his tank, the water he was in and other equipment weighed over 40 tons and only a 1200 metre runway was available in Iceland. This meant that a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster was needed for the task, as a civilian cargo plane would not be able to land on such a short runway [file picture].

Once in Iceland Keiko’s training continued as he was given less human contact and more opportunity to fend for himself. Staff at the pen reported that his behaviour was moving away from that of a captive killer whale and becoming similar to a wild killer whale. By 2001 Keiko was being taken out on ‘sea walks’ where a boat would accompany him out into the open ocean. Keiko (who was fitted with a satellite tag so he would not become lost) would swim away from the boat while he explored the area. The supervised sea walks became increasingly longer, with Keiko spending more and more time alone and successfully, although briefly, interacting with wild killer whales.

Keiko Loading on Plane

Keiko in his container being loaded into the C-17.

Over time Keiko was given less and less supervision on his sea walks and by 2002 Keiko was left out for days on his own. The satellite tag revealed that Keiko was diving deeper and covering more distance each day and also appeared to be spending extended amounts of time with pods of wild killer whales. By the autumn of 2002 Keiko was living and swimming freely in the North Atlantic Ocean and the decision was made to release Keiko into the wild with no human contact at all – although he would still have his satellite tag fitted. This was good timing for the foundation which was funding the Keiko project. It was believed that many millions of dollars had been spend on the project, and funds were beginning to run low.

Keiko lift

Keiko being lifted as part of his transfer from Oregon to Iceland.

However, rather than find a pod of other killer whales to join Keiko travelled nine hundred miles in an almost straight line towards Norway. Although Keiko had successfully been without human contact and help for over two months and must have been successfully hunting and feeding independently, many speculated that the direct nature of his journey meant that he was not happy in the open ocean and was immediately trying to find humans he could interact with. Once in Norwegian waters Keiko eventually ended up in a secluded, shallow water area known as Taknes Bay in the Halsa Municipaity. It did not take long until his presence drew a crowd and Keiko was happy to let people touch him, and even let children ride on his back. This was seen as regressive behaviour by the Norwegian authorities who banned people from going near to Keiko and took over control of his welfare. Eventually he was moved to a much more remote location and Norwegian marine staff began taking Keiko again on his sea walks in an attempt to reintroduce him into the wild for a second time. This was partially successful and for a while Keiko lived ‘semi-wild’ – he would return to the humans but would also explore and roam in the sea. Many people who had been critical of the project from the start saw this as a failure as despite all of the time, effort and money which had been invested into the project Keiko was still preferring – some would claim depending – on spending time with humans.


Once released in Icelandic waters Keiko made a direct journey to Norway.

In December 2003 the sad news was released that Keiko had died. He been showing signs of minor illness such as lack of appetite and lethargy and then beached himself and died the following day. His death was caused by acute pneumonia, and a lack of symptoms followed by a quick and sudden death was reportedly a common occurrence in captive killer whales. Keiko was twenty-seven years old when he died, the average age for a captive killer whale but well short of the lifespan that this species can reach in the wild. The news made headlines across the world. Keiko was buried on land in a secret ceremony with only seven people present, as the Norwegian authorities did not want to turn the event into a media circus.

While the death of Keiko was met with sadness across the world his story had made huge amounts of debate over the ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity. In the decade which has passed since Keiko’s death there has been a huge turn against keeping large, sentient marine creatures in captivity, and if keeping killer whales in captivity is phased out, the life and story of Keiko will have potentially been the single biggest factor in achieving this.

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