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Keiko, the whale that played Willy

I remember when Free Willy was released. The year was 1993 and, like many other kids, I was fascinated by the story of an orphan boy who made friends with a whale that he helped to return to his natural habitat. And I vividly remember the famous scene where Willy jumps over Jesse to fall into the sea, thus escaping from the evil clutches of his unscrupulous owner.

But what I never knew, until many years later, was the continuation of this story in real life, with a much more complex screenplay than that of the film, full of social, political and ethical implications. It´s Keiko´s script, the real whale who played Willy in the original film, who ended up becoming the most famous killer whale in history.

Fans were enamored with his performance and tenderness, and when they found out that Keiko was living in unhealthy conditions, a movement was born to return him to his natural habitat, making the fairy tale come true; thus, the reality show started, involving numerous humane societies, environmental conservatives, Warner Bros., UPS, a billionaire from the mobile phone industry, and thousands of children from around the world.

Keiko in IcelandKeiko in Iceland

It should be noted that it´s somewhat ironic that the same production team that wrote the story of Willy casted a captive whale who entertained at a water park. At first they contacted Sea World (interestingly, the total antithesis of the film´s message), asking for permission to film on their facilities (“keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”?), but they were only willing to provide their pools if the end of the script was changed, making Willy move not to the ocean but to a better aquarium (like theirs). Following this refusal, the producers decided to shoot in Reino Aventura (a water park in Mexico), where a whale named Keiko (which means “the lucky one” in Japanese) had won the affection of the city´s inhabitants, acting in prominent shows and entertaining children and adults alike. Keiko was loved by everyone in the park, especially by his two coaches, Karla Corral and Renata Fernandez, with whom he had a special bond. Keiko was smart, loving and caring with everyone. When the film was completed and the filming crew removed the cameras, Keiko became nostalgic as he sensed that those who had become his friends during the shooting were about to leave, crashing his fins against the water as a way of saying “don´t leave!”, wetting everyone in the process.

He once saved the life of an 18-month-old baby who had fallen silently into the pool without his mother realizing it. The whale swam up the baby and put it back on the surface, preventing him from drowning. Without this intervention, it´s more than likely that the baby would´ve died as no one had noticed his absence. And to confirm this heroic instinct, there´s the Free Willy scene where Jesse falls into the pool, losing consciousness; in the script, the whale was supposed to save the boy by leading him to the surface. Originally, a mechanical whale was going to be used for this, but the director decided to try it naturally, letting the child fall into the pool, hoping that Keiko would react by saving him. Indeed, the whale did it in the first attempt. Keiko´s fame went so high that even Michael Jackson himself tried to buy him and move him to his ranch (although it never happened).

Keiko under the water

Keiko was loved by everyone, and even more by children. And when the film crew decided to put an 800 phone number on the film´s ending credits for people to call if they wanted to find out how to help Keiko, the response was overwhelming. More than 300,000 people called asking the return of the whale back into the wild, which led to a social phenomenon. Almost a year later it was reported that Reino Aventura had been receiving 100 letters daily with requests to “release” Keiko. The “Free Willy – Keiko” foundation was created months later, receiving donations from Warner Bros. (4 million), billionaire Craig McCaw (2 million), and the Humane Association (1 million), as well as money collected by children who wanted to help to make the dream come true. In total, more than $7 million went for the construction of a “rehabilitation center” with excellent conditions, where Keiko would be trained to hunt his own food and getting familiar with elements of the ocean. UPS donated the flight in which he would be transferred to the center, which by the way was full of complications which put the operation at risk at various times, such as a problem with the weather of the day that made the destination airport close temporarily, prolonging the agonizing wait of the whale, which had been too many hours locked in the back of the plane and couldn´t take it much longer in those conditions. Fortunately, the problem was sorted out and everything ended well…

Keiko at his habitat

Or did it? Keiko had his training alongside Karla and Renata, his inseparable coaches and confidants, and ended up returning to his natural habitat with some help from the government of Iceland, which facilitated its waters for the whale. However, scientific studies have shown that Keiko never got fully integrated with the whales that he got to know. He couldn´t hold his breath too long or dive as deep as the others, and came back repeatedly to his human friends to socialize with them and ask for food. Nor did he get to go back to his family, as they were never found. What never changed though was his celebrity status, as people from different parts of the world travelled miles to see him swim without restrictions, coming so close that they could even touch him. He died in December 2003 at the estimated age of 27 years.

Keiko jumping

Nevertheless, his reintegration can be considered a success. Keiko got to freely enjoy his habitat and hunt his own food, which is already a very big gain for a whale that was most of his life away. For those who believe that water parks are “prisons” for its dolphins and whales, it certainly was an unforgettable experience. The other side of the coin is that millions and millions of dollars were spent (about 20) to reinsert a single whale, which shows how complicated this process is. Keiko had the option to live the rest of his life away from humans, in the ocean, but kept coming back to them; controversy exists as to whether this was done by choice or necessity, but I still wonder if Keiko had become “one of us”, and if trying to cut this “human link” in similar animals is truly worth it. That´s the debate.