Keiko the Whale

This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS.

Today we tell about what has happened to Keiko (KAY-koh), the orca whale who appeared in the movie "Free Willy." Orcas are the black-and-white mammals sometimes called killer whales.


That is the sound of whales singing. Ten years ago, a very friendly whale named Keiko was filmed for the movie "Free Willy." The movie tells about a whale named Willy. Humans capture and mistreat him. But the film ends happily as the huge animal escapes into the open ocean.

In real life, however, nobody is sure what the future holds for Keiko. Like Willy, Keiko was rescued from poor conditions in an animal park. Since then many people have worked hard to give Keiko a better life. Expert trainers now are trying to teach him to survive independently in the open ocean.

If he is able to do so, he would be the first orca ever returned to the wild after living most of his life under human control.

Keiko's story begins with his birth near Iceland in about nineteen-seventy-seven. He was captured at age two as he swam with his family. Then he spent three years in an Icelandic ocean center. Next he was sold to an entertainment center in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. There he learned to perform for people who paid to see trained sea animals. But he began to develop skin problems.

His Canadian owners sold Keiko to an amusement park in Mexico City. Children there loved him. But the water in his container was too warm for an orca whale. And, at times, it was not deep enough even to cover the skin on his back. His skin problems worsened. He acted sad.

The Warner Brothers production company entered Keiko's life in nineteen-ninety-two. The company filmed him for the movie "Free Willy." The movie told about a young boy who frees a whale called Willy from an entertainment park. The park is controlled by dishonest and uncaring operators. Millions of people saw this film and two others about Willy that followed. Keiko the actor-whale became famous.

Interest in the whale caused an American publication to write about the sad conditions of Keiko's life in Mexico. The owner of the Mexican park offered to give Keiko to a better home. Warner Brothers and an American businessman, Craig McCaw, promised they would create a better home for the popular animal.


Warner Brothers, Mr. McCaw and the Humane Society of the United States took part in a campaign to help Keiko. More than one-million children joined the effort. The owner of the Mexican park gave the whale to an organization called the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.

Mr. McCaw and the movie company gave the last money needed to finish a new home for the whale. A special treatment center and aquarium were built in the northwest American state of Oregon.

When Keiko arrived in this new home, he weighed nine-hundred kilograms less than he should have. His muscles were in poor condition. He had broken some of his teeth by biting on the sides of his container in Mexico. He could hold his breath under water for only a few minutes.

In Oregon, Keiko's skin growths disappeared. He learned to hold his breath for twenty minutes. He also ate live fish for the first time. Life at the aquarium was good for Keiko. And Keiko was good for the aquarium in return. Many people came to see the orca swim and play.

After eighteen months in Oregon, Keiko had gained more than one ton. The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation decided he was ready for a return to the icy ocean where he was born.

The next step for Keiko was to move him to Iceland. That took place in September nineteen-ninety-eight after careful scientific planning. An American Air Force plane flew him to Iceland. An international environmental organization, Ocean Futures, and the Humane Society paid for the trip. It cost two-million dollars.

Keiko's new home was a huge floating cage in Iceland's Klettsvik (KLEETS-VEEK) Bay. For four years, animal experts worked to prepare Keiko for life in the wild.

The keepers taught him skills he would need to live free. They developed his ability to catch live fish. They took him on what they called "walks" in the open ocean. This meant he would leave his floating cage and swim free. The keepers would watch him from a boat.

During the summer, trainers released Keiko for an extended test. They wanted to see how well he had learned his lessons. After being freed, Keiko stayed in open waters for several weeks. He traveled more than one-thousand-two-hundred kilometers, joining other orcas for a while.

But he did not stay with them. Instead, he followed boats and appealed for food. Keiko ended his trip by entering a protected area in Norway called Skaalvik Fjord (SKOLE-VEEK FEE-ORD) near the town of Halsa. (HOLE-zah).

Near Halsa, he performed tricks for people who came to see him. His keepers appealed to people to leave Keiko alone. But hundreds of people touched him. Some visitors even rode on his back.

Officials in Norway wanted to cooperate with the keepers. They wanted to help Keiko become independent. So the officials restricted crowds from getting near him. Even after that, however, he swam close to shore. He responded to a little girl playing music on her harmonica. A very similar incident had taken place in the movie "Free Willy." Keiko, it seems, wants to be near people.


The keepers say they still believe Keiko can learn to live in the ocean with other orcas. They say he is continuing to make progress toward this goal.

Some animal experts say, however, that Keiko never can live completely free in the ocean. They say he is too old to learn all he needs to know.

As the warmer season ended, Keiko's trainers decided to lead him to another area, also near Halsa. His new home protects him from fierce winter storms. The trainers won the whale's co-operation by offering him large amounts of herring. These fish are Keiko's first choice of food.

His trainers hope he will see more whales in the new home in Taknes (Tahk-NESS) Bay. Only a few farm families live nearby. There are no crowds to interfere with Keiko's training. The trainers say they will continue their attempts to free him once the weather improves.

But even if Keiko never becomes independent, his keepers say he can live the rest of his life in Norway under their care.

Humane Society official Paul Irwin says he sees no reason to move Keiko again. Mr. Irwin points out that Keiko chose where he wanted to be and seems happy there. He says he thinks Keiko can stay as long as Norway accepts his presence.

Norwegian officials seem happy to do this. The nation bans hunting or capture of most kinds of whales. Norway recently resisted a request by an oceanic entertainment center to take Keiko to Miami, Florida.

The Miami Seaquarium wanted to place Keiko with Lolita, its female orca. But animal rights activists say the Seaquarium water is too warm for orcas. And they say the container tank is too small.

The activists point to the fact that orcas can swim as many as one-hundred kilometers a day. They say keeping them in restricted pools of water is cruel. The activists say captured orcas live less than one-half the normal lifetime of an orca in the ocean. But some animal experts dispute all these points.

Marilee Menard heads the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. Mizz Menard says she is pleased that Keiko is being cared for and watched. But she regrets that his independence training requires keeping him away from people.

She hopes Keiko's story has a happy ending. So do thousands of other people who know about the friendly orca. They hope that whatever happens to him, Keiko's life ends as happily as the movie that made him famous.


This Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another Explorations program on the Voice of America.