Free Willy/Keiko swims to Norway
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2002:
OSLO–Swimming up to 100 miles a day with pods of 40 to 80
wild orcas, spending 41 consecutive days at sea, Keiko in August
2002 seemed to be a free whale at last –or so said the Humane
Society of the U.S., which took over his care in June 2002, about
six months after the top funder of the former Free Willy/Keiko
Foundation quit the project.
Then Keiko on September 1 swam into Skaalvik Fjord, Norway,
250 miles northwest of Oslo.
“The orca surprised and delighted Norwegians, who petted and
swam with him, and climbed on his back,” reported Doug Mellgren of
“He is completely tame, and clearly wants company,” Arild
Birger Neshaug, 35, told Mellgren. Neshaug said he was rowing with
his 12-year-old daughter Hanne and friends when Keiko appeared.
Keiko followed them to their dock, and remained nearby for days,
eating tossed fish.
Norway is the only nation which openly hunts whales for
commerce, but most Norwegians seemed delighted by Keiko’s presence.
But Niels Oeien, of the Institute for Marine Research in Bergen, on
September 3 accused Keiko of “disturbing fish farms,” and told
Aftenposten Multimedia, “If there are more such episodes, he should
Eight members of the Free Willy/ Keiko Foundation team, led
by ex-director of research and operations Jeff Foster, had in late
August challenged the HSUS claim that Keiko was fully rehabilitated,
in letters to the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Marine
“The concerns raised by the trainers are serious and valid,”
U.S. Marine Mammal Commission permits officer Jeannie Drevenak told
Katy Muldoon of the Portland Oregonian. Captured in Icelandic
waters at about age two, 21 years ago, Keiko became the
standard-bearer for whale and dolphin liberation after starring in
the 1993 film Free Willy!
Ric O’Barry, the first high-profile cetacean freedom
advocate, who has been liberating dolphins with increasing success
since 1970, warned that Keiko had probably already been captive far
too long and had become too dependent on human companionship to be
considered a good release candidate. But the dramatic ending of the
film, showing the orca leaping a breakwater to escape his captors,
caught the public imagination.
Filmmakers Richard and Lauren Donner invested their profits
from Free Willy! and two sequels, small donors gave as much as $5
million, and telecommunications billionaire Craig McCaw reportedly
kicked in as much as $15 million over the next eight years to buy
Keiko from the El Reino Aventura amusement park in Mexico City, move
him to a specially built tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in January
1996, and then move him again in September 1998 to a sea pen at
Klettsvik Bay, Iceland.
Hoping to release Keiko in late 2000, and planning for a
post-Keiko existence, the Free Willy/ Keiko Foundation merged with
the Jean Cousteau Foundation to become Ocean Futures.
But Keiko couldn’t learn to feed himself. The media
spotlight swung away. Donations fell off. Craig McCaw lost much of
his fortune in the 2000-2001 high tech stock market shakeout, and
cancelled his support, although his ex-wife Wendy still helps.
By fall 2001, Ocean Futures personnel quietly conceded to
the few reporters who remained interested that Keiko might never go
free. Giving up most of their equipment to cut costs, the Keiko
project staff prepared themselves to maintain hospice care, in
effect, for the few more years Keiko might live.
On July 8, however, soon after the HSUS team replaced the
original Keiko project staff, Keiko abruptly changed his ways.
Escorted to sea by boat, he returned to his sea pen 15 days later
for one last hand-feeding, then swam back out. He was seen at sea
twice in July, and was detected in August by radio transmitter,
among pilot whales, dolphins, and a sperm whale near the Faroe
The claimed late success of the Keiko project coincided with
the July 2002 reunion of an orphaned orca with her wild pod in the
Johnstown Strait, north of Puget Sound. Called both Springer and
A-73, the orphaned orca spent the spring following ferry boats
between Vachon Island and Seattle. Taken back north by boat, she
was quickly re-accepted by the pod, and found a surrogate mother in
A-51, a 16-year-old orphaned female.
Cetacean freedom advocates won yet another round later in
July when Argentina refused to authorize the sale of the male orca
Kshamenk to Six Flags Worlds of Adventure, in Aurora, Ohio.
Kshamenk has lived at the Acuario Muno Marino in Buenos Aires since
May 1992, when he was purportedly rescued as a stranding victim.
Argentine authorities agreed with HSUS, Earth Island Institute, and
other critics of the deal, however, that he may have been illegally
Formerly Sea World of Ohio, the park had three orcas then,
but they were moved to other Sea World locations after the site was
sold. Attendance fell–as at Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo,
California, another Six Flags facility, after the deaths of the
last orcas there. Six Flags responded by purchasing an
eight-year-old female named Shouka from Marineland Antibes in France,
and hoped to buy Kshamenk as a mate for her.
A reminder that whalekeeping in captivity is an awkward fit
came on August 5 when a 28-year-old trainer at SeaWorld San Diego
reportedly suffered a severely broken arm when pulled into the water
by either the male orca Splash, age 12, or the female Orkid, age
13. She was working with both. Her name was not released. SeaWorld
spokesperson Darla Davis said the trainer was a six-year SeaWorld
employee, who had been working with the orcas for about one year.
The best known orca still in captivity is Lolita, kept at
the Miami Sequarium since her 1970 capture at Penn Cove, Whidbey
Island, in Puget Sound. Lolita is the last living orca taken from
Puget Sound, where captures ended in 1976. Informally speaking at
an August 15 book-signing by cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff in
Clinton, Washington, Orca Network cofounder Howard Garrett admitted
that the chances of winning her release are slim, but said he would
not give up hope, as she may live to age 50 or beyond.
The Seaquarium in August 2001 announced plans for a $17.5
million expansion of Lolita’s tank into a four-pool complex, but
Dolphin Freedom Foundation president Russ Rector told ANIMAL PEOPLE
in early August 2002 that little progress is visible, while
modifications to the existing tank suggest to him that Lolita may be
losing some of her flexibility due to age. She has already lived
longer in captivity than any other orca.
Although participation in swim-with-dolphins programs
continues to rise, especially in the Caribbean, traditional
whale-and-dolphin acts are tired, Busch Gardens of Tampa general
manager Robin Carson declared on August 18. Fighting a reported 8%
drop in attendance, Carson told Associ-ated Press that the “Dolphins
of the Deep” act featured at Busch Gardens since 1980 would close on
September 2, to be replaced by a 750-seat amphitheater film exhibit.
Three dolphins, two sea lions, two otters, and their
trainers will be transferred to Sea World Orlando, Carson said.