With news of Keiko’s death, like so many of us, I am flooded with questions and mixed emotions. The news affects me as if it were the passing of a beloved leader or master teacher, which Keiko is to many of us. Let’s not forget that he was also once a captive, sick whale who was rescued in a long and arduous experiment to restore him to the dignity of living free in the ocean of his birth.
Keiko’s story is a cautionary tale, full of hope, scientific progress, and of a sea change in how we view our relationship with all that is wild and free.
We must remember that Keiko’s story was the result of his celebrity in “Free Willy,” the story of an orca restored to freedom, but the film was fiction. As the model for Willy, Keiko was the opposite, sick, trapped in a sideshow, at high altitude in a small pool in Mexico City. The audience who cheered for ”Free Willy” would not tolerate such hypocrisy and so a movement was born to “Free Keiko”. Through the remarkable commitment of an amazing group of people who provided the logistics, the funding, and the expertise, and prodded by a growing public who wanted to help Keiko, a long journey was begun.
It has been my privilege and that of my Ocean Futures Society team to be intimately involved with Keiko’s reintroduction to the wild. We were part of the crew that watched him daily, fed him, agonized over creating protocols to train him to be a normal, wild whale again, and debated the ethics of what we were trying to do. All this effort led to clear goals: to restore Keiko to health, to provide him the choice of freedom, and to learn something along the way.
The success is that Keiko swam through that gate to freedom over three years ago, met wild whales, fed himself, traveled his own route through the northern seas where he was born, and every day exercised the freedom of choice that we worked so hard to restore to him. We cannot ignore the fact that his choice was often to continue to seek human company. But his death now is not a failure. Keiko was dying in Mexico and would have disappeared years ago, barely noticed.
But what have we learned?
The need to better understand Keiko and his consorts led to an investigation of wild orca populations that were previously unknown. Hundreds of hours of North Atlantic whale calls are being analyzed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute along with an entirely new library of photos to identify individuals and add specific numbers to the population of these orcas. Every aspect of killer whale physiology has been studied and documented with Keiko, from physical measurements to DNA profiles. New satellite tagging technology has been applied to follow the hidden movement of these large aquatic mammals. Keiko has offered us an encyclopedia of information that will serve the wild populations of orcas we need to better understand.
We have also learned that we were wrong about some things. We thought Keiko’s signature dorsal fin, flopped to the side, was the result of captivity, until we found wild North Atlantic whales with the same fin. It remains to me the emblem of how little we know and how arrogant are our attitudes to think we have nature figured out. Perhaps more than anything, I have learned from Keiko that we know so very little about the wild sea and the dynamics that keep it healthy.
What questions does Keiko leave us?
The most important question is did we do the right thing? I am certain we did. We responded to a clear and present danger to Keiko and restored him to health. We learned what an enormous effort and investment it is to try to fix what we may have broken. Captured at age two, Keiko may have been cheated of the development he needed to be a truly free and integrated whale. Did we give Keiko humane treatment and the best we could provide? Without question. And, most importantly, he captured the heart of the world.
With Keiko, we did something unique: the history of the world is that we take, take, take from nature and from the sea. Never before has the staggering bounty of the ocean been so at risk. We are barely beginning to understand the consequences of our actions. But with Keiko, we tried to give back to the sea, to return a master ambassador who captured our attention and forced us to consider our actions. We tried to fix what we had broken. Ultimately, we must realize with great humility, that in nature, what we break cannot always be fixed.
By helping Keiko, we were able to give back to ourselves, to our children, to future generations, to nature itself. This enormous effort demonstrates our caring and our willingness to do better. Keiko will continue to serve as an ambassador of nature and of the sea to the human species, and as a reminder of what we must and must not do.
Keiko, our master teacher, our ambassador of the wild, put a face and a personality to the complexity, power, beauty, and intelligence of the sea and of all that is wild. My greatest hope is that the children who sent their allowances and sold cookies to raise money to free Keiko will carry the same heart into the decisions they make as future leaders. Our greatest tribute to Keiko would be if the young people of the world who were fascinated with him now view the ocean with greater wisdom, knowing that we must not only protect what we love, we must also prevent what we cannot fix.
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Photo: Jean-Michel Cousteau up close with Keiko of “Free Willy” fame at the bay pen that was constructed for Keiko in Iceland, where he continued to be rehabilitated for release into the wild. Courtesy Ocean Futures Society