J.D. van der Toorn (1999-2001)
Cetacean releases

Table of contents

Joe and Rosie
Echo and Misha
Into the Blue: Rocky, Missie and Silver
Atlantis Marine Park dolphins
Bogie and Bacall
Buck, Luther and Jake
Ariel and Turbo

Keiko (Last modified: Wednesday, December 31st, 2003)

Keiko is a male killer whale, captured off Iceland in November 1979. He was one of 59 whales, collected in Iceland between 1976 and 1988 (Sigurjónsson and Leatherwood, 1988). (Note: in the Sigurjónsson and Leatherwood publication, there are some pictures of a capture operation off the southeast coast of Iceland, which took place in November 1979, involving the vessel Guðrún, which was involved in Keiko's capture. It is unclear if Keiko is actually in those pictures, though) At the time of capture he was 366 cm long (probably 1-2 years of age). Keiko was collected off the coast near Breiðamerkursandur area, where Iceland's main glacier, Vatnajökull, is closest to the sea. He was collected by Sædýrasfnið, the Hafnarfjord marine zoo, together with 3 animals that were sent to Kamogawa in Japan (see Hoyt (1990); Hoyt refers to Keiko as Kago). He was at Marineland Ontario until 1985. Then he was transported to Reino Ventura in Mexico. In 1993 he rose to fame as the star in the movie "Free Willy". This put him in the spotlight and plans were made to release him. This became a high profile case. Ken Balcomb made a draft proposal for the release of Keiko, which was the base of negotiations with Reino Ventura. In mid-1994, the Free Willy Foundation was formed as a project of the Earth Island Institute. Plans were made to move Keiko to a new facility at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. Estimated cost of the whole project: about $10 million. After some delays, Keiko was transported to Oregon on January 7, 1996. UPS (United Parcel Service) offered to make one of their cargo planes available for the transport, free of charge.

At the time of Keiko's move to Oregon, there were two major obstacles to his release:

In early October 1997, the Associated Press reported increasing discord between the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation over Keiko's care, health, and rehabilitation techniques. On October 1, 1997, the Board of the Oregon Coast Aquarium requested an independent evaluation of Keiko's health, claiming that the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation had not regularly shared medical and rehabilitation information with the Aquarium. On October 7, 1997, the OR Veterinary Medical Association recommended that an independent team composed of NMFS, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine personnel be formed to render an unbiased opinion on Keiko's health and fitness for possible release.

On January 28, 1998, the results of the health evaluation were published by marine mammal veterinarians (including Jim McBain from Sea World and Joe Geraci from the National Aquarium in Baltimore), APHIS officials and a few others. They noted that Keiko had experienced health problems, including liver problems and a lung infection. His skin condition seemed to have improved. However, they concluded that at the time of the examinations, which took place in November and December 1997:

There is no current indication that Keiko is ill. He showed no clinical pathological evidence of chronic deep-seated infection during his residence in Oregon. Immunological test results are apparently within known normal parameters, and there was no evidence of recent viral challenges to 48 different viruses. Keiko appeared to be exhibiting no abnormal behavior patterns. At the time of the study, Keiko was recovering from an illness (probable hepatopathy) of several months' duration. The only known chronic condition in evidence is probable papillomatosis.

(The report was published on the MARMAM mailing list on February 2, 1998)

Later that year, the Icelandic government, after lengthy discussions, decided that it would allow Keiko to be imported. On September 10 1998, Keiko was flown to Iceland in a C-17 cargo plane, which was made available by the US Air Force. He was moved on a public display permit from NMFS. His Icelandic location was Klettsvík cove on the island of Heimæy one of the Vestmannæyjar (Westmann Islands) near the southern tip of Iceland. Especially Heimæy is a popular tourist area in Iceland. His move was broadcasted live on Internet.

Since his arrival in Iceland, Klettsvík cove had been visited by some dolphins and a harbor seal. Some killer whales had been seen in the general area, but there was no record of any vocal contact between Keiko and local killer whales. (According to Bill Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Keiko's dialect is definitely a North-Atlantic one, but is more like that of Farœrese killer whales than like Icelandic whales.)

It was expected that Keiko's arrival in Iceland would have an effect on public opinion regarding whales, whale watching and whaling. However a Gallup poll conducted between September 28 and October 11, 1998 revealed that 30 per cent of Icelanders were happy with the arrival of Keiko, over half had no opinion, and nearly 20 per cent were not at all pleased to see Keiko swim in Klettsvík cove. Nearly half of those asked believed that Keiko's move to Iceland would make it more difficult for Icelanders to resume whaling. At the same time support for whaling had risen and was at 81 per cent with only 10 per cent opposed. This was the highest support since Gallup began asking about whaling in 1993. On March 10, 1999 Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, voted in favor of resuming whaling and the government was asked to prepare the way for this event as soon as possible, thus ending the 16-year ban.

On March 16, 1999, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute merged into a new organization: Ocean Futures. This organization took over the care for Keiko and reported regular updates on Keiko on its web site.

For quite some time, there were plans to expand Keiko's enclosure. After heavy storm damage, work on the expansion was postponed, but restarted in January 2000. In late February and early March, heavy weather caused further delays. On Friday March 3rd, 2000, the gates of Keiko's sea pen were finally opened, giving him access to a large section of Klettsvík cove. Keiko was hesitant to leave his pen and had to be lured out by his trainers in rubber boats. Keiko was trained to avoid boats, except one that would be used to guide him in open water excursions.

In May 2000, construction work started on the harbor in Klettsvík cove. This involved blasting with dynamite. To prevent unnecessary disturbance of Keiko, he was led out of the cove. Keiko's trainers made sure that no whales were in the area when Keiko was led out of his enclosure, because they felt "he was not ready for that". Since then, Keiko was taken on numerous so-called ocean walks. On these walks he had a number of encounters with wild killer whale pods (an encounter is defined by Ocean Futures as a distance of less than 100 meters between Keiko and the other whales). There were a number of close encounters, but none of them lasted more than a few seconds. Invariably, Keiko returned to the accompanying research vessels after an encounter. Also, Keiko was trained to respond to a recall signal and return to the vessels on cue. During the walks, Keiko was fitted with a satellite transmitter.

During the summer of 2000, Keiko was taken on 40 excursions outside his enclosure and he travelled about 1000 km. On 15 of those excursions wild killer whales were encountered. By the time the native killer whale pods moved out of the area in the end of 2000, Keiko had shown no intention of joining a wild pod. The wild pods seemed to tolerate his presence, but hardly showed any interest. No attempts to take Keiko out were undertaken during the winter. (In the meantime, the cost of maintaining Keiko in Iceland are ISK 30 million (USD 306,100) per month).

During the summer of 2001, Keiko was out on a number of ocean walks again. There were numerous interactions with killer whale pods. Some appeared to be play behavior. In other instances, the behavior seemed to be directed towards causing one or the other to leave the area. At other times, Keiko would swim off on his own, away from whales and any known food source. According to Ocean Futures, 2 major milestones have not been reached yet:

  1. Keiko has not been observed interacting with any one pod for a consistent period of time
  2. Keiko has not been observed foraging on his own

Keiko spent another winter in Klettsvík Bay. For April 2002, the construction of a large salmon farm was planned on the Bay. This construction would make access to Keiko's enclosere more difficult. In addition, there were serious concerns about the impact on the water quality in the Bay. This might make it necessary to relocate Keiko once again. In some unconfirmed messages, a relocation to a bay in Scotland was mentioned. In December 2001, the option of moving Keiko to Stykkishólmur on the Northwest coast of Iceland was explored, but Keiko was not relocated.

In the spring of 2002, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) took over the care for Keiko from Ocean Futures. HSUS has been a major contributor to the project and decided to take over when Ocean Futures has to scale down its operations due to financial constraints.

In early July 2002, during one of the ocean walks, Keiko disappeared. Because he was fitted with a satellite tag, he could be tracked to some extend although no efforts were undertaken to locate him in the field. Keiko headed for the Faroer Islands and on September 2, 2002, he swam into Skålevik Fjord.

In early July 2002, during one of the ocean walks, Keiko disappeared. Because he was fitted with a satellite tag, he could be tracked to some extend although no efforts were undertaken to locate him in the field. Keiko headed for the Faroer Islands and in early September 2002, after spending about 7 weeks in the North Atlantic, he swam into Skålevik Fjord near Kristiansund (between Ålesund and Trondheim) in Norway. There he attracted a lot of attention. Several people swam with him and local tour operators started organising "Keiko safaris". Also Keiko was soliciting handouts from the people. The Foundation stepped in and moved Keiko to another location in the fjord, away from the crowds. Keiko seemed to be in reasonably good condition, although his behaviour shortly after his arrival in the fjord prompted the Foundation to get a blood sample (which Keiko delivered in cue) and treat him with antibiotics.

Keiko's appearance in Norway sparked an extensive debate about the release program. Keiko's obvious preference for human company is seen by some as an indication that he has failed to adapt and is unfit to be released. Others however see the fact that Keiko spent nearly 60 days on his own in the ocean as a sign that he might make it on his own after all. The fjord Keiko selected caused additional debate. He cannot stay there during the winter, since the fjord will freeze over. Some have suggested that the most humane thing to do is to put Keiko to sleep, instead of letting him slowly starve to death. This has led to strong reactions and even death threats aimed at the Norwegian scientist who suggested it. Others have suggested relocating Keiko either back to Iceland or to an aquarium, where he can be in the company of other whales. Miami Seaquarium had volunteered to take him, but this offer was vehemently declined by the HSUS. Late 2002, the decision was made to relocate Keiko to Taknes Bay, near Halsa, not too far from Skålevik Fjord. He arrived there on November 8th and stayed there. During the winter, Keiko got trapped under the ice. He managed to free himself and apart from some bruises on his head he did not suffer any damage. Throughout 2003, HSUS attempted to sever Keiko's bond with humans, but Keiko stayed in Taknes Bay, where he became a local celebrity and a tourist magnet.

Keiko injured
© Zsolt Halapi (2003)
Keiko's head injury after his icy encounter in February 2003. Click on the image to see a larger version.
(This image was taken by Zsolt Halapi whose permission to use the picture is gratefully acknowledged. For more pictures from Norway, including some of Taknes Bay and Keiko, see http://www.halapi.hu/norway/)

Rather unexpectedly, Keiko got pneumonia in early December 2003 and suddenly died on Friday, December 12th, 2003. Although Norwegian law dictates that the remains of marine mammals should be destroyed at sea, an exception was made for Keiko and he was buried at night on the beach of Taknes Bay.


E. Hoyt (1990)
Orca - The whale called killer (new edition)
Robert Hale, London.
J. Sigurjónsson and S. Leatherwood (1988)
The Icelandic live-capture fishery for killer whales, 1976-1988
in: J. Sigurjónsson and S. Leatherwood (eds.): North Atlantic Killer Whales. Rit Fiskideildar, vol XI, pp.307-316


Note: the Iceland Review site, which featured a lot of stories on Keiko has moved and the older stories are no longer available. To access the latest stories, registration is required.

News items
Keiko's Sudden Exit from the Limelight Caps a Long, Strange Trip (obituary by Naomi Rose)
The Humane Society of the United States - December 2003
Keiko's burial lasted three hours
Aftenposten - 15 December 2003
Keiko secretly buried on shore
Aftenposten - 15 December 2003
Norway mourns loss of Keiko
Aftenposten - 15 December 2003
Keiko, the Most Famous Whale in the World, Dies in Norway
The Humane Society of the United States - 12 December 2003
Keiko døde av lungebetennelse (in Norwegian)
Aftenposten - 12 December 2003
'Free Willy' whale, Keiko, dies
CNN - 12 December 2003
Serene summer for Keiko
Aftenposten - 1 August 2003
Unusual winter keeps Keiko 'human'
Aftenposten - 23 April 2003
Keiko injured after icy encounter
Aftenposten - 27 February 2003
Keiko makes a splash with new hosts
Aftenposten - 8 November 2002
Researchers blast Keiko project
Aftenposten - 21 October 2002
Keiko får bli i Halsa i vinter
Aftenposten - 15 October 2002 (in Norwegian)
Officials find new home for Keiko
Aftenposten - 15 October 2002
Keiko får ikke flytte fritt
Aftenposten - 10 September 2002 (in Norwegian)
Forskerne vil flytte Keiko så han kan treffe familie
Aftenposten - 10 September 2002 (in Norwegian)
Keiko may have to move
Aftenposten - 10 September 2002
Rest, food and recreation for Keiko
Aftenposten - 9 September 2002
Matet for første gang på seks uker
Aftenposten - 8 September 2002 (in Norwegian)
Keiko har avgitt blodprøve
Aftenposten - 8 September 2002 (in Norwegian)
Hvalen som ikke ville bli vill
Aftenposten - 8 September 2002 (in Norwegian)
Keiko can stay in Norway
Aftenposten - 6 September 2002
Keiko fuss worries authorities
Aftenposten - 6 September 2002
Experts blast 'Keiko safaris'
Aftenposten - 5 September 2002
Noorwegen vreest voor leven 'Free Willy'
nu.nl - 5 September 2002 (in Dutch)
Death threats for whale
Aftenposten - 4 September 2002
Please don't feed the whale
The Oregonian - 4 September 2002
Whale expert: 'Best to destroy
Aftenposten - 3 September 2002
Experts fear Keiko is too fond of people
Aftenposten - 3 September 2002
Famous whale 'Keiko' swims into fjord
Aftenposten - 2 September 2002
Keiko Takes an Unprecedented Walk in the North Atlantic
Humane Society of the United States - 2 August 2002
Keiko to stay in the islands?
Iceland Review - 8 January 2002 (registration required)
Natalie Pawelski: Pod or pen for Keiko?
CNN - 14 October 2001
'Free Willy' star may not be cut out for freedom
CNN - 15 August 2001
Orka met sterallures 'psychisch wrak'
Volkskrant - 4 August 2001 (in Dutch only)
Willy won't he?
Time Europe - 11 September 2000
Keiko: Born to be wild
ENN Features - 4 November 1999
General Keiko information
Aftenposten Online
Online edition of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, which has a section with News in English. The latest local news on Keiko is reported here.
Oregon Coast Aquarium - Keiko Central
A collection of news items on Keiko
Keiko's Story: The Timeline
Humane Society of the United States
Keiko Watch
The Latest News on the Orca's Return to the Wild at the HSUS site
Ocean Futures
The site of Ocean Futures (the result of the merger between the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute and the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation). This site has news items on marine issues and a special section for updates on Keiko.
Warning: unfortunately your browser must have cookies enabled in order to access this site

Back to Table of Contents

Previous page  
Back to the Online Papers Page Back to the Publications Page