Marine Mammals

Marine Mammals: Keiko

Jean-Michel Cousteau up close with Keiko

Keiko's Timeline

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Photo: Jean-Michel Cousteau up close with Keiko of “Free Willy” fame at the bay pen that was constructed for Keiko in Iceland, where he continued to be rehabilitated for release into the wild. Photo Courtesy Ocean Futures Society

  • 1977 or 1978: Keiko is born in the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland.
  • 1979: Keiko is captured and brought to Saedyrasfnid, an Icelandic aquarium.
  • 1982: Marineland in Ontario, Canada, buys Keiko, where he begins his training and performs for the public. Skin lesions first appear.
  • 1985: Marineland sells Keiko to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City, for $350,000.
  • 1992: Warner Bros. Studios begins filming "Free Willy" on location in Mexico City. The plot of the movie has a young boy saving a killer whale, portrayed by Keiko, from an unscrupulous marine park owner.
  • 1993: "Free Willy" is a surprise hit at the theaters, especially with millions of schoolchildren around the world. That attention, combined with a magazine story detailing Keiko's less-than-adequate living conditions in Mexico City, prompts the movie company, animal advocates, and the park to begin a search for a new home for Keiko.
  • 1994: Earth Island Institute, an environmental advocacy group for marine animals, begins discussions with the Oregon Coast Aquarium. After the Aquarium meets preliminary requirements, the Institute and the Aquarium begin negotiations. The Free Willy Foundation is formed with a $4 million donation from Warner Bros. and an anonymous donor.
  • 1995: Reino Aventura donates Keiko to the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. The foundation announces that Keiko will live at a new $7.3 million rehabilitation facility at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, with the hope that he eventually be returned to the wild in the North Atlantic. Craig McCaw and the McCaw Foundation are revealed as the anonymous donors of the $2 million that helped start the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation. The Humane Society of the United States donates $1 million to the foundation, and children around the world begin sending money for Keiko's freedom. "Free Willy 2" is released on home video, carrying a request for donations for the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation. The pool at the aquarium is filled with sea water in December, in anticipation of Keiko arriving on the announced target date of January 7, 1996.
  • 1996: United Parcel Service delivers Keiko to the aquarium on January 7. Weighing a skinny 7,720 pounds, Keiko is placed in his new pool and experiences sea water for the first time in 14 years. Keiko gains more than 1,000 pounds by year's end, and his skin lesions begin to fade.
  • 1997: Keiko's staff introduces him to live fish in May in an effort to teach him to hunt for live food, a vital skill if he is ever to be released. At first he doesn’t eat the fish, but brings them to his trainers. He catches and eats his first fish in August. A filtration problem causes a halt in the live-fish release in his tank, but the program resumes early in 1998. His skin lesions have disappeared. After 18 months in Newport, Keiko is lifted from the water and weighed. He weighs 9,620 pounds, a gain of 1,900 pounds. The staff of the Free Willy Foundation sets a goal of releasing Keiko into a pen in the North Atlantic by 1998. Keiko suffers from a possible liver ailment and respiratory infection but responds to treatment.
  • 1998: The medical staff announces that Keiko is healthy and exhibiting the normal behavior patterns of a killer whale. In April, Familian Industrial Plastics begins building a bay pen for Keiko. The components are shipped to Iceland, where they will be assembled. Keiko is catching the live steelhead released in his enclosure and eating up to half of his daily intake of food by catching it himself. On September 9, Keiko is transported by C-17 from Newport to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland and adapts well. By late September, the staff and Keiko face their first winter storm. Winds of over 130 mph lash the bay pen. Staff and Keiko come through unharmed. Bay pen repairs continue through the winter months.
  • 1999: During his first full year back in his native Icelandic waters, Keiko continues comprehensive physical and behavioral training to prepare him for his potential reintroduction to the wild. He is under the day-to-day care of Ocean Futures Society staff. An essential component of his reintroduction program is to move his attention from above water to below the surface where he will spend most of his time in the wild. Attention is also given to having Keiko depend less on his human caretakers for stimuli and develop greater interest in his natural environment.
  • 2000: As the year progresses, Keiko must achieve significant milestones in the Ocean Futures conditioning program if he is to be successfully reintroduced to his native ocean. Training includes gate training, which will provide Keiko access from the bay pen into Klettsvik Bay, and eventually into the open ocean off Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. Other important activities Keiko must master are tone recall training, renewed live fish training, learning to be led by boat to the open ocean and performing open ocean "walks" with the Ocean Futures support vessel.
  • 2001: During the summer sessions, Keiko begins to behave like a wild whale, competing with other orcas in the vicinity for food. He initiates contact with wild orcas although it doesn’t seem easy in all cases and some aggression is noted on the part of the wild whales toward Keiko. He spends several days away from his human companions on the boat. Keiko’s challenge continues to be to feed himself and associate with wild orcas.
  • 2002: On the first day out of the netted bay pen as summer sessions begin, Keiko leaves the tracking boat for the company of nearby whales. For three weeks, he is observed in and around groups of orcas, until he begins a 1,000 mile journey across the North Atlantic, past the Faeroe Islands to the coast of Norway.

    Going 60 days without any human support or food, Keiko arrives following a fishing boat inside a Norwegian fjord at Halso. Inspected by his lead veterinarian and found to be healthy, it is concluded that Keiko has successfully fed himself in the wild.

    He decides to stay in and near the Norwegian fjord and there is a public and media frenzy with thousands of people coming to visit Keiko. Project staff and the Norwegian government pass regulations to protect Keiko from an enthusiastic public so he won’t be “loved to death.”

    The Craig McCaw Foundation and Ocean Futures Society turn the daily monitoring and management of Keiko over to the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation and the Humane Society of the U.S. Keiko is free to come and go at will but the decision is made to supplement his food to maintain is health and he is again fed by human caregivers.
  • 2003: After nearly a year and a half in Norway, on December 12, Keiko beaches himself and dies of a pneumonia-like condition. He is in the company of devoted staff members who have been caring for him. He is the second oldest male orca to have been in captivity, but dies at an age that is half that of a wild male orca. His adventure has captured the heart of millions of people and has given scientists and children alike the rare opportunity to both fall in love with and study a magnificent orca.

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