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Keiko (whale) facts for kids

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Keiko on December 1, 1998, at the Oregon Coast Aquarium
Species Orcinus orca
Sex Male
Born (1976-09-24)September 24, 1976
Near Iceland
Died December 12, 2003(2003-12-12) (aged 27)
Arasvikfjord, Norway
Years active 1979–2003
Notable role Willy in Free Willy
Weight 6 tons (12,300 pounds; 5440 kg)

Keiko (earlier Siggi and Kago), (September 24, 1976 – December 12, 2003), was a male orca who portrayed Willy in the 1993 film Free Willy. He was eventually freed in Iceland, in July 2002, but did not fully adapt to the wild and died in December 2003 in Norway.


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

Keiko was captured near Iceland in 1979 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, the orca was sold to Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. Keiko was then sold to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City in 1985. There, he was given the name "Keiko", a feminine Japanese name that means "lucky one" or "blessed child". He was found by movie scouts at the run-down park and became the star of 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. 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 was given over $7 million to construct facilities to return him to health with the hope of eventually returning him to the wild. News Photo 980909-F-5019K-053
C-17 Globemaster III in preparation for loading the specially made transport tank containing Keiko

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 donated 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 massive, new concrete enclosure containing seawater, his first experience with this medium. His weight had increased significantly by June 1997, to 9,620 pounds (4364 kg).

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. News Photo 980909-F-0000N-071
Air Force cargo handlers and loadmasters load the specially made transport tank containing Keiko

Nevertheless, the process of preparing Keiko for the wild began on September 9, 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.

The Humane Society of the United States re-established management of the project 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. The total cost of freeing Keiko was about US$20 million.


Niagara falls fallsview 04.07.2012 15-15-59
After capture in 1982 Keiko was sold to Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

Keiko died in Taknes Bay, Norway, while swimming in the fjords on December 12, 2003, at about 27 years of age. Pneumonia was determined as his probable cause of death. Most sources conclude that the project to free Keiko was a failure because the whale failed to adapt to life in the wild. 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.

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


  • Quinceañera (1987 TV series)...Orca
  • Keiko en peligro (1990)...Keiko
  • Free Willy (1993)...Willy
  • Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995)... Willy (Credited, though an animatronic whale was used for most if not all of the scenes)
  • Azul (1996 TV series)... Keiko
  • Free Willy 3 (1997)... Willy (Credited, though an animatronic whale was used for all the scenes)
  • Keiko: The Untold Story (2010)

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