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Keiko (killer whale) facts for kids

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Keiko on 1 December 1998, at the
Oregon Coast Aquarium
Species Killer whale (Orcinus orca)
Breed Icelandic
Sex Male
Born c. 1976
Near Iceland
Died 12 December 2003(2003-12-12) (aged 26–27)
Arasvikfjord, Norway
Notable role Willy in Free Willy
Weight 6 tons (12,300 lb; 5440 kg)

Keiko (earlier Siggi and Kago; c. 1976 – 12 December 2003) was a male captive killer whale captured near Iceland in 1979 who portrayed Willy in the 1993 film Free Willy. He is also notable for having been released back into the wild in Iceland in July 2002. He died in December 2003 in Norway of pneumonia.

Early life

Keiko was captured near Reyðarfjörður, Iceland in 1979 at the approximate age of two and sold to the Icelandic aquarium in Hafnarfjörður. At the time, he was named Siggi, with the name Kago given at a later date.

In 1982, he was sold to Marineland in, Ontario, Canada. At this new facility, the whale first started performing for the public and developed skin lesions indicative of poor health and was also bullied by older killer whales. Keiko was then sold to Reino Aventura, an amusement park (now present day Six Flags) in Mexico City, in 1985. There, he was given the name "Keiko", a feminine Japanese name that means "lucky one". He was transported to Mexico via cargo plane from the Northwest Territories. At the time, he was only 10 feet long and was housed at the Mexican facility in a tank intended for smaller dolphins.

Free Willy

Keiko was found by film scouts at the run-down park and became the star of the film Free Willy in 1993. The publicity from his role in the popular film led to an effort by Warner Bros. Studio to find him a better home. The pool for the now 21-foot-long killer whale was only 22 feet deep, 65 feet wide and 114 feet long (1,130,390 US gallons (4,279,000 L)), and the water temperature was often too warm. Some of the content was filmed at Reino Aventura and the rest in Mexico City.

Free Willy-Keiko Foundation

Donations from Warner Brothers and Craig McCaw led to the establishment of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation in February 1995. With donations from the foundation and millions of school children, the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon, US was given over $7 million to construct facilities to return him to health with the hope of eventually returning him to the wild. Reino Aventura donated Keiko to the Foundation. UPS provided ground transportation to the nearby Newport Municipal Airport in a specialized container. Before he left the amusement park in Mexico, Keiko performed for the public for the last time. Weighing about 7,700 pounds (3493 kg), he was transported by air in a C-130 Hercules loaned by UPS; during the flight, the orca was in a 30 foot long transfer tank filled with sea water and cooled occasionally with ice cubes.

On arrival in Oregon in 1996, Keiko was housed in a new (2,000,000 US gallons (7,600,000 L)) concrete enclosure containing seawater, his first experience with this medium. His weight had increased significantly by June 1997, to 9,620 pounds (4364 kg).

Re-introduction to the wild

The plan to return him to the wild was a topic of much controversy. Some felt his years of captivity made such a return impossible. Researchers in a scientific study later said attempts to return him to the wild were unsuccessful, but that monitoring him with radio and satellite tags was part of "a contingency plan for return to human care," which secured "the long-term well-being of the animal." Others considered his release misguided. The Norwegian pro-whaling politician Steinar Bastesen made international news for his statement that Keiko should instead be killed and the meat sent to Africa as foreign aid.

Loading Keiko onto a C-17 transport on 9 September 1998, in Newport, Oregon for transport to the Westman Islands in Iceland

Nevertheless, the process of preparing Keiko for the wild began on 9 September 1998, when he was flown to Klettsvík, a bay on the island of Heimaey in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. Upon landing at Vestmannaeyjar Airport, the C-17 Globemaster aircraft suffered a landing gear failure causing over $1 million in damage, though Keiko was unharmed.

His day-to-day care became the responsibility of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation with management assistance from the Ocean Futures Society. He was initially housed in a pen in the Klettsvik Bay where he underwent training designed to prepare him for his eventual release, including supervised swims in the open ocean.

Ocean Futures left the Keiko project in late 2001. The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and The Humane Society of the United States re-established management of the project at that time until Keiko's death in 2003. Keiko was fully free by the summer of 2002 and departed Icelandic waters in early August following some killer whales but not integrated with the pod. His journey was tracked via the signal from a VHF tag attached to the dorsal fin. About a month later, he arrived in Norway's Skålvik Fjord, apparently seeking contact with human beings and allowing children to ride on his back. His caretakers relocated to Norway and continued to conduct boat-follows with Keiko for the next 15 months. On the basis of girth measurements and blood tests, it was assumed that Keiko had fed during his 900-mile (1500 km) journey to Norway from Iceland. Keiko occasionally approached groups of wild killer whales, but remained on the periphery, at distances of 100–300 meters (109 to 328 yards), with his head pointing toward the closest orca.


Keiko died in Taknes Bay, Skålvikfjord, Norway, while swimming in the fjords on 12 December 2003, at about 27 years of age. Pneumonia was determined as his probable cause of death.

Evaluation of the re-introduction process

Most sources conclude that the project to free Keiko was a failure because the whale failed to adapt to life in the wild. In Norway, Keiko had little contact with other orcas and was not fishing; for months before his death, the whale was being fed daily. A report in The Guardian describes the freed orca's life in Taknes Bay as follows: "... until his death Keiko was, rather than frolicking freely in his fjord, being taken for 'walks' by caretakers in a small boat at least three times a week. ... It took more than 60 failed attempts to reunite Keiko with free orcas before he followed a group where, spotting a fishing vessel off the Norwegian coast, he followed it into the fjords that would prove his final resting place."

According to an article in New Scientist, "He was seen diving among the wild orcas only once, on 30 July 2002. And after physical contact at the surface, Keiko swam away, seeking out human company on the tracking boat". A scientific study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science (July 2009) confirms that he was seen on the periphery of some wild groups but was never seen to be socially integrated with such whales. In summary, "He never integrated into a wild pod ... and could not break his need for human contact." His return to humans for food and for company confirms the failure of the project according to the same scientific study.

Reasons cited for Keiko's failure to adapt include his early age at capture, the long history of captivity, prolonged lack of contact with conspecifics and strong bonds with humans.

In spite of those comments, David Phillips, executive director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, praised the release project: "We took the hardest candidate and took him from near death in Mexico to swimming with wild whales in Norway". "Keiko had five years with the sights and sounds of natural seawater. I think it was a great success in terms of Keiko, his well-being, and the whole world that wanted to do the right thing." Others also claim that the release was a success, and The Huffington Post called it a "phenomenal success ... giving him years of health and freedom".

The total cost of freeing Keiko was about US$20 million. The lead author of the study published by Marine Mammal Science said: "You can't just let these animals out into the wild. You have to take the responsibility, and that might cost a lot of money. The fortune spent on Keiko might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat ... But that's not as appealing as the adventures of a single whale". An alternative to freeing orcas after long-term captivity, is the use of a "sanctuary" or "oceanic enclosure" (sea pen), according to Lori Marino of the Whale Sanctuary Project. "They can’t be released, but their quality of life can be improved by orders of magnitude", Marino said in a 2016 interview where she agreed that the cost would be high ($15 to $20 million). "It’s a solemn responsibility, and it’s the best we can do for animals that are in captivity."


In 2010 the film Keiko: The Untold Story was released. In 2013 a New York Times video, The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed, included interviews about Keiko's return to the ocean.

  • Quinceañera (1987; TV series), as himself
  • Keiko en peligro (1990), as himself
  • Free Willy (1993), as Willy
  • Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995), as Willy
  • Azul (1996; TV series), as himself
  • Free Willy 3: The Rescue (1997), as Willy
  • Keiko: The Untold Story (2010), as himself
  • The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed (2013), as himself

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Keiko (orca) para niños

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