The smiling face you see in the header of this post belongs to Keiko, the orca who portrayed "Willy" in the film Free Willy. A surprise smash hit, the film drew a lot of attention to the whale and the abysmal living conditions he endured in his tiny pool at an amusement park in Mexico City. This negative attention prompted Warner Bros. to launch a campaign to save Keiko, presumably out of the goodness of their hearts, and not due to the fact that they looked like complete douches for not doing anything to help the whale during the filming of a movie they were sure wasn't going to make much money.
In 1996 Keiko was transferred to a freakin' awesome new, $7 million bachelor's pad at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. His new tank was filled with natural sea water-- a luxury he had not experienced in 14 years. The whale gained 1,000 pounds during his first year in his new home, and he began to become healthier and more energetic.
After a few years and a lot of training, Keiko was deemed fit to live in a sea pin in his native waters of Iceland. While being monitored carefully by experts, Keiko would go for "sea walks", sometimes spending days away from his pin to interact with wild orca whales.
In 2002 he was finally set free. he swam 1,000 miles from Iceland to a fjord in Norway. I'd probably want to stretch my legs out too after being pent up in a tiny cage my whole life. There was a problem with Keiko's new freedom, however.
Call it Stockholm Syndrome, or call it gratitude for the years of intense care he was provided by experts, Keiko missed humans. When his head popped out of the waters in that Norweigian fjord he was in excellent physical condition, demonstrating that he was able to hunt for himself, but he was starved for affection, as evidenced by these (regrettably small) photos.
It should be noted that there have been no documented orca attacks on humans in the wild. They often approach boats and observe us with the same intense curiosity we have when we observe them. It should be noted however that it is most likely a bad idea to swim with wild orcas. They are apex predators after all, and they have been known to hunt great white sharks, just for kicks and giggles.
There isn't even a safe haven on land anymore! No seal is safe!
Keiko passed away in 2003 due to acute pneumonia. He was around 26 years old, which makes him the second oldest male whale in captivity. Male whales that spend their lives in the wild on average live to be 50, with many living to be 50 to 70. Females live even longer in the wild; one female who resides in the waters near California named "Granny" is 103-years-old!
It took nearly ten years to "free Willy" (turns out simply jumping over a rock barrier doesn't cut it) and though he may have died too young, he at least died a free whale.
A memorial cairn erected in Taknes Norway.
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