A whale of a lie behind a fishy tale

Free Willy? It could go badly wrong. Not for nothing is the sea called cruel

Share
Related Topics
The Hollywood star was in the pool when I arrived, and he had the kind of schedule most of us only dream about. First came a rubdown, then a session with his personal trainer, followed by a light lunch. "There is squid, herring, sardines and smelt, all top quality," explained the publicist. "You could do worse than live on his diet. He eats about 200 pounds a day."

No, it is not the most expensive bouillabaisse on America's West Coast, but a freezerful of fish for Keiko, the killer whale who leapt to fame as the star of the Free Willy films. It has been a year since Keiko came to this pool - a custom-built $7.3m tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium - and it is not only his appetite that now seems larger than life. Keiko has four staff devoted to his care, and keeping him here costs half a million dollars a year.

Even by Tinseltown standards that is not cheap. His bills are paid by donations and that is a lot of charity for one whale. There is something fishy here, and that has to do with Hollywood, damage control and our love of happy endings.

Not long ago Keiko was just another amusement park attraction jumping through hoops for his dinner. In this he was like the other 50 killer whales in captivity. Caught off Iceland in 1979 when he was two, Keiko spent time at Marineland in Ontario before being sold to Reino Aventura in Mexico City. It was here that Warner Brothers filmed him for its story about a whale helped to freedom by a boy after being threatened by unscrupulous amusement park owners.

Free Willy was a surprise hit, making $150m worldwide and spawning a sequel, with another currently in production. But it also landed Warner Brothers with a public relations nightmare when it was revealed that the star himself was living in a pool that was too small and too warm. He may have been the best-loved killer whale in Latin America - well, he was the only one - but he was also the most unhealthy, with a drooping dorsal fin and a skin condition that is the whale equivalent of herpes.

By the time the sequel had premiered, the damage was almost completely in control, with plans well advanced for moving Keiko to Oregon. Not only was he going to a bigger, better and colder pool, but he was also to be prepared for freedom - just like Willy. "The goal of the project has always been release but there are big obstacles," says an Oregon Aquarium spokeswoman. "It has never been done before and at this point he would die. He is not healthy enough, and he's too dependent on people."

This is an understatement. Keiko loves people, and they love him. "We are his family. We are his pod," says a mammologist, Mark Trimm. "We call him a one-in-a-million whale because he does not have the hormonal mood swings you normally see." Perhaps Keiko just does not have the time to be grumpy: from 7am to 10pm he is busy with aerobics, socialisation and play. After then one of his humans may drop by to see a movie with him. (Keiko, who watches through his observation window, hates nature programmes and loves action movies such as Lethal Weapon.)

"We are here for his sake. What we do is entirely based on rehabilitation. This has never been done before," says mammologist Nolan Harvey. Keiko has responded well to the regime - gaining 1,000lb to his current 9,000 and looking much healthier - but he has a long way to go before he swims free.

So do we. There is much we do not know about killer whales - for instance, when and how they sleep - and we are particularly ignorant about the pods in Icelandic waters. If Keiko is freed he needs to be returned to his original pod. This could be identified only by dialect - each pod has a distinct one - but matching Keiko's is difficult as he "speaks" a rather odd patois that includes dolphin noises (they lived with him in Mexico) and a whistle like a Mexican fire engine.

Over the years Keiko has learned scores of "behaviours" but none so far involve anything as basic as killing. "They are the apex predator; nothing hunts a killer whale," says Mark Trimm, as we watch a documentary showing killer whales ambushing seal pups. Keiko leaves the observation window; if you've never seen a live fish, it is going to be some time before you are lunching on seal pup.

As well as becoming a killer, to be freed Keiko would have to be disease- free and fit enough to swim up to 100 miles a day. None of this dampens the media's enthusiasm for a feel-good story. "I'm on the West Coast of America with a Hollywood star who is preparing for a new free life," began an ITV report last week.

Nathan Labudde, of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation in San Francisco, is almost evangelical about it all: "People are astonished that we are tackling this against such incredible odds. But we heard the same rhetoric when he was languishing in a pool in Mexico. Nobody believed we could do it, and we did. People need to believe in this."

In the movie Willy leaps to freedom and is soon cavorting on the high seas to a Michael Jackson tune. In reality, freedom has its drawbacks. Iceland is a pro-whaling nation and the sea isn't called cruel for nothing. In his pool, Keiko is rich and famous. In the ocean he is just another whale. The idea of a free Keiko could be the biggest whopper of them all.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Full Stack Developer (.NET 4.0, ASP.NET, MVC, Ajax, WCF,SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Full Stack ...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law