The real-life orca star of the blockbuster movie Free Willy was never really free.
The killer whale that starred in the 1993 classic, Keiko, died in 2003 after tragically failing to adapt to a new life in the wild off the coast of Iceland.
The unhappy orca was captured as a calf, raised in tanks and kept separate from other killer whales for most of its life.
Despite efforts to integrate him with wild orcas in Iceland towards the end of his life, he was unable to interact with them or find food to survive.
Keiko was born to a wild group of killer whales in Icelandic waters before being caught in 1979, when he was just two years old.
After six years of living with other killer whales in tanks in Iceland and Canada, she was sold to an amusement park in Mexico City.
From 1985 to 1996, Keiko lived a solitary life, performing in a small pool that had no contact with any other orcas.
It was during this time that he starred in the 1993 Hollywood hit Free Willy, in which street kid Jesse befriends Willie and tries desperately to free him from exploitative bosses who want to kill him.
Keiko shot to animal stardom after playing the lead role in the film and there was enormous public pressure to release her into the wild.
Then, in 1996, filmmaker Warner Bros. joined forces with the International Marine Mammal Project to free Keiko and return her to wild Icelandic waters.
Initially, he was taken to a state-of-the-art rescue and rehabilitation facility at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Oregon to increase his strength.
They were later released into a large marine peninsula in their home waters of Vstmannjar, Iceland, where they were given specialist training to prepare them for the wild.
Keiko was the first captive orca ever returned to the waters of his home, living a life free of the stresses and dangers of life in a concrete tank.
But returning to life at sea was not so simple and straightforward for killer whales.
training for the wild
During the summers of 2000, 2001 and 2002, Keiko was trained to follow her caretaker boats and practice swimming in the open sea.
And every summer, they spent several days swimming with wild killer whales to help them adapt to the ocean and meet someone of their kind.
Human contact was limited to help her get used to sea life, and if Keiko approached the tracking boat, the crew went under deck or hid from view.
But during his time with the whales, a frightened keiko always lived on the edge of the pod, often 300 meters away.
experts of marine mammal science Said that Keiko would be seen swimming motionless – known as logging – or swimming slowly.
Tragically, samples taken from the whale’s stomachs after excursions with the pods did not reveal any traces of food, meaning that Keiko had not managed to forage for any food.
In a ray of hope, there was an occasion when Keiko was seen diving among other killer whales.
But the splinter from the tail of one of the orcas startled and distraught Keiko and he immediately swam to the tracking boat to safety.
Sadly, this was the only time the star of Free Willy was seen diving and interacting with other killer whales.
life in norway
On another occasion, he was seen chasing a small boat along with the locals for a fishing trip.
He followed the boat all the way to Skalvikfjorden in Norway, and crowds of people spent days trying to touch him or swim with him.
Keiko was often the conversation starter and swam happily from group to group.
Eventually, local animal welfare officials banned people from touching, feeding, or approaching her, prompting Keiko’s caretakers to step in and re-feed her and take her for regular swims.
In the end, Keiko failed to immerse himself in the wild and remained at bay in Norway, where he remained until he died of pneumonia in December 2003 at the age of 26.
Mylen Simon of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, who participated in efforts to reintroduce orca into the wild, explained new scientist: “We believe that the best option for him was open pen in Norway with the care of his trainers.
“He could swim as much as he wanted, had lots of frozen herring — which he loved very much — and kept active with the people he connected with.”
The researchers said: “While we as humans may find it tempting to free a captive animal for as long as possible, doing so could seriously affect the animal’s survival and welfare.”
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