Killer Whale "Willy" Shows Reluctance to Be Free

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
September 10, 2001
After a second summer of whale boot camp, it seems that Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the movie "Free Willy," is still not prepared to embrace his freedom and join wild orcas in the North Atlantic.

For the past two years Keiko has been taken on "ocean walks" scheduled to coincide with the migration of pods of free-ranging orcas. Trainers have led Keiko from his majestic enclosure in Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, to nearby orca feeding grounds, where he can socialize, feed, and forage with other whales in the open ocean.

After more than 60 trips out of the bay this summer, August was a promising month for Keiko, who was accompanied by a chartered fishing vessel, two support boats, and a helicopter.

First he initiated contact with fellow orcas, locating and chasing them and being chased by them. Keiko's other achievement was an almost seven-hour spree during which he socialized with three pods of whales before returning to his trainers on the boat.

What these behaviors represent is hard to say, as relatively little is known about North Atlantic killer whales.

The chaperones say that although Keiko showed an interest in wild orcas, his interactions were generally brief and he returned to the vicinity of the boat after a few minutes.

Social Adjustment

Keiko has consistently failed to socialize with one pod, however, and still does not forage on his own. This has led many observers to wonder whether he would be capable of sustaining himself if he ever returned to the wild.

"We don't know what it takes for an outsider to join a pod, but it's clear it's a very complicated social process," said Charles Vinick of Ocean Futures, a nonprofit organization responsible for managing Keiko's return to the wild.

Supplementing the ocean "walks," Keiko's summer has also been filled with training to build stamina.

After two decades of bobbing around in enclosed aquariums and being hand fed dead herring, he is being led to swim long distances so he will have the strength and endurance to keep pace with wild whales. He is also learning to catch his dinner.

Keiko was caught in Icelandic waters about 22 years ago, at the age of two, and has been in captivity ever since. After a life of performing in marine parks and a couple of hit movies, he has had little opportunity to socialize with any species other than man. Whether he is able to communicate with other orcas is still unknown.

"We have learned that it's very easy to capture a whale, but we've also learned that it's real tough to put one back," Vinick said.

Gradual Reintroduction

Orcas live in tight family units for their entire lives, always feeding and foraging together. Vinick thinks that it may be more challenging for wild whales to accept a stranger than it might be for Keiko to adopt a new family.

The root of the problem could be language. Though recordings indicate that Keiko's vocalizations are similar to those of other North Atlantic and Icelandic orcas, every pod seems to have a unique dialect. "We think that Keiko probably speaks the same language but not the same dialect," said Vinick.

Figuring out what else can be done to aid Keiko's reintroduction to wild whales is a challenge, Vinick said.

There is still too little understanding about community building within orca pods, and of different dialects, to know whether additional time spent helping Keiko to become more socialized will be effective in encouraging him to join a pod.

"If money was no object we would happily continue working with Keiko every summer to encourage socialization, because this whole endeavor is a wonderful research project," said Vinick. But summer research and year-round, 24-hour care cost about U.S. $3 million.

If funding is available, the research will continue next year, giving Keiko another opportunity to join a pod. In case the attempt is not successful, Ocean Futures has begun to scout out locations for a permanent home where Keiko can still enjoy his celebrity status.

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