Keiko Goes Home
by Mark Berman
The dream of returning Keiko, the orca star of the Free Willy movies, to his home waters, has come true.
Keiko first captured the world's attention in 1993 as the co-star of the Warner Brothers summer blockbuster directed by Richard and Lauren Shuler-Donner. In 1994, EII created the Free Willy Keiko Foundation (FWKF) with the mission of rescuing Keiko from the confines of a small tank in a Mexico City theme park. After more than two years of rehabilitation at the specially built $7 million facility at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon, Keiko had regained his good health and had put on 2000 pounds. That set the stage for September 10, 1998, a day that will be remembered as the first time a captive orca has been returned to its native habitat.
On September 9, Keiko - carefully lifted into a specially designed transport container - left Newport amid cheers from local children and whale conservationists. With the container secured in the belly of an Air Force C-17, Keiko spent the ten-hour flight surrounded by a team of veterinarians and FWKF representatives, including EII Executive Director David Phillips.
At 10 AM, September 10, Keiko arrived in the tiny volcanic Westman Islands of Iceland. He was warmly received by more than 4,000 children and adults waving banners and sporting "Velkommen Keiko" t-shirts. A school holiday was declared so the children could participate in the historic event.
I had the good fortune to stand alongside FWKF boardmembers Ann Moss, David Phillips, Craig Van Note, Paul Irwin, Bob Ratliffe, and Beverlee Hughes and watch as Keiko was lowered into the pristine Icelandic ocean waters of the massive 250-foot-long sea pen built by Familian Industrial Plastics of Washington State.
The emotional climate was beyond description as Keiko - for the first time since he was captured at the age of two - felt his native waters wash about him. He immediately slapped the surface with his tail fluke, dove deep and swam several laps around the entire pen, reveling in his new, wild ocean environment.
Only two hours after Keiko's arrival, a pilot whale visited the sea pen. Keiko's vocalizations intensified as he and the pilot whale checked each other out. Since his arrival in Iceland, Keiko has vocalized much more than he did during his 19 years in captivity. Keiko has continued encountering fellow marine mammals, including harbor porpoises, harbor seals, and minke whales. The sounds of these meetings have all have been recorded on hydrophones.
Keiko's veterinarians have been extremely pleased by his level of activity and interest in exploring his new surroundings. The sea pen site is rimmed by breathtaking cliffs, home to millions of puffins and other sea birds. The pen allows a variety of local fish and other marine life to swim with Keiko. In fact, Keiko has already begun chasing and catching live capelin and herring that have swum into his pen.
Keiko's amazing story continues to unfold. The coming year will provide crucial information to determine whether Keiko can be successfully integrated back into the wild orca population. Meanwhile, his arrival has spurred a dramatic increase in scientific research on wild orcas and the Icelandic marine environment.
Keiko's return underscores the value of studying and protecting whales. Doing the right thing for Keiko is already helping the world's whales. What better legacy could have come from a movie like Free Willy?