February 28, 2024

Anyone who grew up in the 1990s may well remember this movie scene: a 3.6-tonne orca leaping to freedom over a harbour wall and swimming off into the sunset with his family. It was the closing scene of Free Willy, a film that captured the hearts of a generation, telling the story of an orphaned boy racing against time to free a killer whale from captivity before the creature is destroyed.

It was 30 years ago this month that the film was released in the UK and it went on to spawn three sequels and a TV series. But it also helped to expose the dark side of orcas in captivity – not least the real-life story of Keiko, the whale who played Willy. Rescuing him took many years and millions of dollars – and even then the ending was not one that would have made the movie screens.

After the film had become a box-office hit, viewers soon learned the real Willy was not free. He was performing in a marine entertainment park in Mexico City in poor conditions. A captive orca would have to do more than 1,000 loops of its enclosure to cover the daily distances it would swim in the wild, says Rob Lott, a campaign coordinator at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).

Jason James Richter and Keiko in the film Free Willy, which led to three sequels and a TV series. Photograph: Everett/Alamy

Thousands of children phoned and wrote to the film studio, Warner Bros, and the marine entertainment park, says Charles Vinick, director of the Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP). “They were saying, ‘hey, you lied to us’.”

The environmentalist David Phillips, director emeritus of the Earth Island Institute, was asked to visit Keiko in Mexico City to see if he could help. “His dorsal fin was all folded over; he had this papillomavirus on his skin; he was really, really underweight,” he says.

Keiko’s life in captivity started when he was captured near Iceland and taken from his family in 1979, aged about two – though it was more than a decade later that he would go on to star in Free Willy. Returning this whale to the wild would not be easy, if it was even possible, and the cost would be astronomical.

Although the chances of finding Keiko’s family were slim, female orcas can live into their 90s so “his mom was probably still alive”, says Phillips, who founded the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation (FWKF).

Charles Vinick, who managed the effort to return the orca to Iceland. Photograph: WSP

Keiko was moved in 1996 to a specially built tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium where he did not have to perform and had more space, fresh fish and cold seawater. It took two years of recovery before vets, the US Congress and the Icelandic government approved his relocation back to Iceland.

He was flown from Oregon to Iceland in September 1998. Only one aircraft was capable of carrying Keiko: a US air force C-17 military transport jet, refuelled twice during the flight. Vinick, who travelled with Phillips and Keiko, still has a framed photo of the C-17 on his office wall.

Inside the plane, Keiko was in an open-topped shipping container with ice water up to his fins. Staff had to keep adding ice as the huge mammal’s body heat warmed up the water but he remained quiet and calm throughout the journey. “He may have had a sense that he was going back to his waters,” says Phillips.

The whale’s arrival at a specially constructed seaside pen in Klettsvik Bay, Iceland, was not the end of his journey. “The word release implies we’re opening a gate and he swims out, he’s gone. Everyone’s happy. Great job,” says Vinick. “That’s not what it can ever be for an orca or most cetaceans.”

Keiko had lost his survival instincts and did not know that live fish were food. After being encouraged to catch one, he would return it to his trainers, like playing fetch, he says.

Gradually, Keiko learned to follow a boat for “long walks” in the open ocean. To keep up with wild orcas swimming 100 miles a day, he needed to build his stamina and lung capacity “in much the same way you or I would train for a marathon”, says Vinick.

Icelanders watch as a US air force military transport jet carrying Keiko prepares to land at Vestmannaeyjar airport. Photograph: Sipa US/Alamy

In 2002, the team lost sight of Keiko after their boats had to shelter from a huge storm. In the following weeks, he swam hundreds of miles from Iceland to Norway, arriving in such good condition that scientists were sure he had been feeding himself.

But Keiko’s love of humans, particularly children, kept drawing him back to the company of people. In Norway, he came across a father and daughter fishing and followed them inshore. He would spend the rest of his days coming and going from one Norwegian fjord.

Unlike Willy, Keiko never found his family. In December 2003, Vinick received a call telling him that Keiko had died of pneumonia, aged 27. “[Orcas] have a remarkable capacity to not show any evidence of illness until it is very severe,” says Vinick, who was devastated by the news. By the time people noticed the whale was breathing abnormally, it was too late.

Keiko in Norway’s Skålvik fjord. The whale turned up there unexpectedly after swimming hundreds of miles from Iceland. Photograph: Gorm Kallestad/EPA/Shutterstock

Keiko’s reintroduction to the ocean is sometimes criticised because he was unable to fully reintegrate into the wild. Phillips, however, does not “think it’s quite right to feel that’s the only success point”.

He is proud that Keiko left Mexico City – where he is convinced he would soon have died – was returned to his home waters, became able to feed himself and made it to Norway. The International Marine Mammal Project notes that eight captive orcas died in SeaWorld facilities during the time Keiko was in the care of the FWKF.

His legacy is not only a change in perceptions of captivity, but also evidence that seaside sanctuaries can work. Keiko was the first captive orca to be returned to its home waters and proved that whales could have a better life in conditions closer to their natural environment. Klettsvik Bay, the location of his seaside pen, is now home to the Sea Life Trust’s beluga whale sanctuary.

Hundreds of children and adults in Norway building a memorial to Keiko after the whale died in 2003 in Taknes Bay, near Trondheim. Photograph: Gorm Kallestad/ EPA/Shutterstock

Like Keiko, most captive whales and dolphins today would not be able to survive in the wild – the majority were born in captivity. But conservationists believe they should not be kept in small concrete tanks where they cannot use echolocation, which is essential for navigation, foraging and hunting prey.

Like the sanctuaries created for elephants or big cats rescued from poor conditions, a whale seaside sanctuary provides them with a natural habitat and prioritises their wellbeing above all else. They have much more space to explore, deeper waters, a sandy bottom and marine life such as birds, fish and crabs to interact with. People can visit sanctuaries to see the whales from a distance but they are not made to perform.

An illustration of the Whale Sanctuary Project’s planned 40-hectare sanctuary in Port Hilford Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada. The WSP hopes it can become home for six to eight whales transferred from parks. Illustration: WSP

The Whale Sanctuary Project is setting up a seaside sanctuary in Canada as well as promoting others around the world to allow once-captive cetaceans to live out their lives in a natural ocean environment. After causing them so much anguish, says Vinick, “we need to do right for what we’ve done.”

But captivity has not ended. According to the WDC, there are about 3,600 captive whales and dolphins in about 58 countries today, including at least 56 orcas. WDC wants breeding, transfers between parks, and performances to stop and for welfare standards to improve.

Legislation is being tightened up, with new laws in Canada, France, the US and South Korea. Even Russia – until recently, the only country to catch orcas and belugas for captivity – is no longer capturing orcas, and the country’s controversial whale jail has been dismantled.

The focus is now on China, which is estimated to hold one in every three captive cetaceans in the world today, Lott says. According to the WDC’s most recent figures, China has an orca-breeding programme, with 99 facilities holding marine mammals and 10 more being built.

In the UK, there were once more than 30 facilities holding whales or dolphins. “Can you believe they kept orcas at the end of the pier in Clacton, as a pier show?” says Lott.

The Sea Life Trust team moving Little Grey, a Beluga whale, to a bayside pool in Klettsvik Bay in Iceland, where the whale acclimatised to its new home. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Despite having no facilities in the UK for 30 years, cetacean captivity is not illegal and campaigners are seeking a ban to make sure it never comes back.

Harry Eckman, chief executive at the World Cetacean Alliance, is exasperated that so many places are still holding these intelligent animals captive. “I don’t understand how we’re still having this conversation.”

Most captive orcas are underweight, with compromised immune systems and teeth worn down to nubs from gnawing on their tank bars. They will never be able to fend for themselves, Vinick says, “but we owe them a better life.”

Keiko remains the only orca to have been reintroduced into the wild. “We’ve always known how easy it is to capture a whale,” says Vinick. “What Keiko showed us is how hard it is to put one back.”

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