‘Free Willy’ for Real: The Whale Featured in the Hit Movie Gets His Own Documentary

Keiko, the cetacean who played Willy, is the focus of a new film debuting in Hollywood today.
A new documentary about Keiko, the killer whale, debuts today in Hollywood. (Photo: Tory Kallman/Getty Images)
Aug 17, 2013· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Even as activists and orca lovers around the world celebrate the release of the heart-wrenching documentary Blackfish, Hollywood reminds us this is not the first time that the black-and-white behemoths were celebrated on the silver screen. Last year, the French drama Rust and Bone featured killer whales in captivity as a major plot point.

And today, at Hollywood's legendary Egyptian Theater, moviegoers are being treated to a powerhouse double feature—all about orcas.

First up is the family-friendly classic Free Willy, screening on the 20th anniversary of its original release. As many remember, it's the heartwarming and engaging story of a young teen who plots to set a killer whale free.
That orca, played beautifully by a real-life whale named Keiko (CAY-koh), inspired the other film, a documentary called Keiko: The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy, which is making its world premiere in high definition today at the Egyptian.
The story behind the story of Free Willy is fascinating. Its cetacean star, Keiko, was taken from his mother's side off the coast of Iceland in the early 1980s, not far from the site where the notorious three-time killer Tilikum was captured, around the same time.
And like Tilikum, Keiko spent time at a Canadian theme park, Marineland, (where he was kept in an indoor tank for much of the time) before being sold to a park in Mexico City, Reino Aventura.
That park was no place for a killer whale. Its pool was small, warm, and filled with tap water and table salt. Keiko's skin broke out in grotesque bumps, possibly from papilloma virus and, as he matured, his towering dorsal fin collapsed onto his back, like all captive adult male orcas. His only companion was a bottlenose dolphin.
I was so captivated by Keiko's story, I dedicated four chapters of my book, Death at SeaWorld, to the saga, which was beautifully portrayed in the documentary, directed by Theresa Demarest, a musician by trade who was also gripped by the tale.
When Warner Bros. gave the greenlight to Free Willy, they needed to find a location, and a whale, that would fit their production needs. Keiko and Reino Aventura were perfect. But when filming was over, the question of what was to become of Keiko burned hot in the minds of many movie fans. What ensued was a multi-year, multimillion-dollar effort to rehabilitate Keiko and return him to the sea.
Keiko spent several years at an aquarium on the Oregon Coast, where his skin improved and he learned to catch and eat live fish, before being transferred to a special sea pen inside a protected cove in his native Iceland.

Eventually, he was allowed on monitored "walks" in the open sea. One day, inexplicably, he took off, heading hundred of miles east to Norway. The Norwegians received Keiko like the Hollywood star he was, swimming or paddling out into the water to greet him.

Keiko was transferred to a more remote location further north. He lived another 18 months, with his caretakers, before dying at about the age of 30 (the average life expectancy for male orcas). Critics called the entire campaign cruel, exhorbitantly expensive, and a massive failure.
But there is another side to the story, which Demarest lovingly documents.
"It is my hope that with the release of my film, Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy, that everyone will take a new and serious hard look at the effort to release Keiko," Demarest wrote in a recent Huffington Post blog.
"Keiko is the only captive orca ever to have been rehabilitated and released back to the wild, and yet he was the most unlikely candidate to succeed in such an effort. All too often, Keiko's release from captivity has been cited by the media and the marine park captive industry as a failed project and given as the reason other captive orcas should not be released. And that fact is precisely why I embarked on the monumental effort to tell Keiko's yet untold story."
As Demarest pointed out, whether Keiko's rehab and release was a success or failure "continues to fuel the debate regarding the fate of the other 46 orcas still in captivity in the U.S., Argentina, Canada, France, Japan and Spain."
Currently, active efforts are afoot to release at least three wild-caught orcas currently being held in tanks: Corky, a Northern Resident killer whale caught in British Columbia, at SeaWorld, San Diego; Lolita, a Southern Resident killer whale caught in Washington State, at the Miami Seaquarium; and Morgan, who was taken off the coast of the Netherlands and now resides at Loro Parque, in Spain.
Free Willy taught us that killer whales belong in the ocean, not in swimming pools. Keiko taught us that returning some whales to nature is possible, and ethical, in my mind. Now, with Blackfish, the Keiko documentary, and the 20th anniversary of Free Willy, perhaps more pressure will be brought to bear to release more whales.
In the case of Corky and Lolita, we know who and where their pods are. Reuniting them with their families would be a happier ending than any Hollywood screenwriter could conceive.