Keiko is born in 1977 or 1978 in the North Atlantic off of Iceland. In 1979,
as a calf barely two years old, he gets caught in a herring fishing net, is
captured and kept in Iceland for three years, until Marineland in Ontario,
Canada buys him. Keiko is one of six orcas being trained by the park, but he
is the youngest and most timid.
By 1985, it's evident that Keiko is not thriving at Marineland and he is
sold to a Mexico City amusement park, Reino Aventura. He lives there in a
small tank with bottlenose dolphins and sea lions, and performs in five shows
In 1992, Warner Bros. stars Keiko in the lead role in its "Free Willy" movie.
It becomes a box-office smash. But Keiko, its star, is failing and by the
time the film is released in 1993, Keiko has a compromised immune system, is
severely underweight and suffers from significant muscle atrophy because of his
small tank. After seeing "Free Willy," more than 300,000 people from around
the world call an 800 number displayed at the end of the movie, expressing
their wish that Keiko be released - just like the Willy character he played.
In November 1993, Life Magazine publishes a headline story on Keiko's
Well aware that Keiko needs a new home, Reino Aventura increases its efforts to
find him one. (In the meantime, Sea World donates chillers to cool the water
temperature in his pool from its high temperature - in the mid-80s.) Warner
Bros. and Earth Island Institution, an environmental group, also join in the
effort to relocate Keiko.
In January 1995, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation is formed, a private,
non-profit organization which gets enough money and support together to move
sick Keiko in January 1996 from Mexico City to a new rehabilitation facility
at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. The tank is much larger, and
has cold sea water.
Keiko's early months in Oregon in 1996 are devoted mainly to improving his
health. He is mentally sluggish from years of torpor in Mexico City and so
out of shape that he can hold his breath, at best, for three minutes. The
outlines of his skull and ribcage show and there are large warty tissue masses
around both pectoral flippers and above his tail flukes. These are from a
normally benign papillomavirus.
Under the guidance of cetacean veterinarian Dr. Lanny Cornell, a
holistic health-care and rehabilitation program focuses on key areas:
cardiovascular workouts coupled with a bigger, better diet; mental stimulation
to wake Keiko from his mental lethargy; and social enrichment.
By the end of 1996, Keiko has gained over 1,000 pounds, can hold his breath
for over 13 minutes, has lost most of his skin lesions, and is mentally alert
and engaged. His astonishing improvement surprises everyone.
The next goal is to teach Keiko to eat live fish again, to increase his vigor,
muscle tone, skin condition so that he may be released to the wild and it is
hoped, reunited with his family.
In September 1998, 21 year-old Keiko is flown to a protected holding pen in a cove off
the coast of Iceland. There, his rehabilitation continues as he is
monitored and measured. His handlers deliberately ignore him so that they can
make him less dependent on humans and help Keiko learn to hunt and feed himself.
It may take two years to determine whether Keiko can be released into the icy waters
of the North Atlantic from which he was captured.
For regular updates on Keiko's progress
in Iceland, visit The Orgegon Coast Aquarium's "Keiko News Central".