BOOK REVIEW: Keiko the Whale, The Star of Free Willy

The old adage “hindsight is 20/20” comes to mind when one pages through 1998’s Keiko the Whale, The Star of Free Willy. As most people are aware, Keiko the orca starred in the family film “Free Willy,” which became a surprise box-office hit in 1993. It wasn’t long before it came out that the real “Willy” was languishing in an inadequate tank in a Mexico City theme park. He was underweight, had a severe skin disorder, and didn’t seem long for this world.

The response by the American public was heartening and dramatic. School children took up collections, and donations poured in to help this famed and beloved whale. Few deny that this poor creature should have been given a new living space that would allow him to thrive and enjoy his life. An immense, naturalistic tank was built for just for him at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. However, many weren’t satisfied until Keiko’s life followed the plotline of the movie. Even the costly aquarium was seen as a stepping stone to his eventual release back into the ocean. This book was written while Keiko was living at Oregon Coast Aquarium, before his transferal to a sea pen.

Keiko the Whale has some positives going for it. Few children’s books take an anti-captivity stance, or discuss whales being taken from the wild for amusement parks. This one does both. At one point the text reads,

Orcas are not protected in some parts of the world and are still being captured, removed from their families, and sold to amusement parks.

You won’t see that in most picture books about orcas and dolphins, which frequently seem as if they were ghostwritten by Sea World.

Despite being nearly twenty years old, “Free Willy” and its sequels remain popular with the children’s DVD market. Those who may be a little too young to learn that the orca star is deceased will no doubt enjoy this book, and they’re given some lessons in the process about animal welfare and the importance of helping others.

The book ends hopefully, but perhaps naively. At the time, Keiko’s was a story unfinished. While Keiko did indeed die in freedom six years after Keiko the Whale  was published, it wasn’t the freedom his champions had imagined, nor was it perhaps what the whale himself would have wanted. Here’s how Animal People News editorialized Keiko’s passing:

Keiko, 27, the orca star of the Free Willy! film trilogy, died suddenly on December 12, 2003 from apparent acute pneumonia.
His death concluded perhaps the most Quixotic, costly, and popular episode in 138 years of documented efforts by some humans to save whales from exploitation by others …

[Activist Ric] O’Barry, who has now freed many small whales successfully, predicted all along that Keiko would never become a genuinely wild whale because he had become too habituated to humans.
[Activist Paul] Watson pointed out as early as 1995 that the sum raised to try to free Keiko far exceeded the total campaign budget of all the activists working to halt Japanese and Norwegian whaling, and to prevent the resumption of commercial whaling by other nations.
The most famed and beloved whale ever, who was evidently as fond of humans, especially children, as humans were fond of him, “Keiko believed his purpose was to open people’s hearts and to teach them about love and loving animals,” eulogized Oregon animal communicator Bonnie Norton.

After Keiko was rescued form the puny New Mexico tank, he seemed happiest just being around people, Animal People reported. After decades in captivity, Keiko seemingly had no interest in being a “wolf of the sea” like his wild relations.

Nearly five years of frustration among activists and his trainers followed, as Keiko seemed unable or unwilling to learn to catch live fish. Instead, he preferred to play with them until they escaped.
Then, barely a month after inheriting the rehabilitation project and changing the whole staff, HSUS seemed to have abruptly succeeded in releasing Keiko. Swimming up to 100 miles a day with pods of 40 to 80 wild orcas, managing somehow to feed himself enough to keep going, Keiko dodged storms and ships–and on September 1, 2002, swam into Skaalvik Fjord, Norway, 250 miles northwest of Oslo.
He made his way to the nearest children and began to play.  Thereafter, Keiko cavorted with humans and begged for fish treats…

I know I’m not the only person who believes he should have stayed at Oregon Coast. The Keiko release escapade made anti-captivity activists look foolish, and it’s perhaps no surprise that there have been no more releases of orcas from amusement parks. I simply roll my eyes when I hear fellow animal advocates pushing to release all captive orcas, including those who have been in captivity far longer than Keiko, into the ocean. Once an orca has been living in a tank and being hand-fed for decades, he’s not going to just revert back to the wild creature he once was. Let’s learn from Keiko and stop creating these dependent, helpless orcas to begin with.

(This review originally appeared at


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Wilton Wainio
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 22:49:43

    nice work, love your design, suits the page well 🙂


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