Today’s New York Times has an interesting Retro Report covering the story of Keiko, a killer whale who became an unlikely celebrity in the 1990s. I was one of the ridiculous number of reporters who covered Keiko’s “rehabilitation” at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and filed this dispatch for the New York Times on September 6, 1998.


In Act I, Keiko the killer whale was found languishing in a tiny Mexico City amusement park in 1993, after his heart-tugging performance in the film ”Free Willy.” In Act II, the privately funded Free Willy Keiko Foundation stepped in to bring the celebrity orca to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996 for a cozy two-and-a-half-year recovery. Act III starts Sept. 9, when the foundation flies the world’s biggest movie star to a sea pen in a protected bay of Iceland’s remote Westmann Islands. There, Keiko will be reintroduced to the chilly waters he was captured from almost 20 years ago, in preparation for possible release into the wild. Then what? Well, various things could happen. Here’s a look.

FOREVER CAPTIVE: Keiko is not an ideal candidate for reintroduction — he’s a lackluster hunter with viral warts and little experience with other whales. Nolan Harvey, director of animal care for the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, says release is the long-term goal, but if that seems too risky, the foundation will keep taking care of him. Iceland’s entrepreneurs hope he stays: they’re already selling Keiko-themed frozen treats to tourists.

PEST OF THE NORTH ATLANTIC: No one has attempted to reintroduce a captive orca to the wild, but earlier cetacean releases with bottle-nosed dolphins suggest that freeloader behavior might be a problem. In one release, ”dolphins tended to hang around fishing boats because they think ‘boat’ equals ‘dinner,”’ explains Tom LaPuzza, public affairs officer for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, says Keiko could get in trouble. ”Icelandic and Norwegian fisherman shoot orcas because they think they’re competing for cod,” Watson says.

BELLY UP: Captive male orcas live up to 30 years, which means that at an estimated age of 21 or 22, Keiko may not have much time left anyway. Sad to report, this whale also has enemies. One Icelander, angry that his hometown wasn’t chosen as Keiko’s hideaway, threatened to kill him by releasing poisoned fish in his bay. Keiko’s life will be documented by the foundation’s research cameras — for public viewing — giving rise to a grim possibility. ”He could die on camera,” says Michael Hutchins, an official with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, ”while children are watching.”

KEIKO AND THE GANG: There’s hope that Keiko could be linked up with an orca pod, but so far his prospects look dim. ”Keiko’s been a big teddy whale all his life,” says Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., noting that the whale was ”beaten up on” by two female whales during his first captivity in Canada. ”He may be a winner in people’s hearts,” Balcomb says, ”but to other whales he’s a loser with a skin condition.”

September 6, 1998

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