TEXT ON SCREEN: July 16, 1993
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 20/20, 1-24-03):BARBARA WALTERS: Hes the sweetest killer whale known to man. His name is Keiko, but millions know him as the star of the hit movie Free Willy.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 1-24-03): REPORTER: Free Willy, a tale of a lonely boy who frees a whale from a run-down theme park.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 11-26-98): TED KOPPEL: Now he is one of the most beloved animals in the world.
NAOMI ROSE: Free Willy was a sleeper hit. I think they made a mint on it.
DAVE PHILLIPS: The movie hit this incredible chord within the public. I mean in the movie he jumps to freedom. But what about in real life?
SUSAN ORLEAN: Its just a story that nobody imagined would exist in the real world. In the Hollywood version of it, it had a really great ending. In the real world, kind of complicated.
WHAT HAPPENED TO WILLY?
NAOMI ROSE (FORMER SENIOR SCIENTIST, HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE US): This is one of those weird situations where in order to make Free Willy, they actually had to violate a sort of fundamental premise of the film. This whales going to go home, but that whale didnt.
NARRATION: In 1993, Free Willy amazed audiences with the story of a captive killer whale returned to the wild. But in real life, Keiko the whale who played Willy on-screen was languishing far from the Hollywood spotlight. An irony the press took notice of.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 11-26-98): JUDY MULLER: Forced to swim in endless circles, his dorsal fin drooped, and he developed lesions from a skin virus.
DAVE PHILLIPS (FREE WILLY KEIKO FOUNDATION): The film crew moved on. The movie moved on, and he was still stuck there. The veterinarian that we worked with said that probably he only had another three months in Mexico before he would die.
NARRATION: Keiko wasnt a born performer. He was captured as a calf off the Icelandic coast in the late 70s and was trained to join a long line of performing whales.
ARCHIVAL (CAMELOT RECORDS, 1966): TOM GLAZER: Namu the Killer Whale
NARRATION: The first of those whales, Namu, died after only 11 months in captivity, but since then dozens of killer whales have been captured, becoming star attractions in a worldwide multi-billion dollar marine park industry.
ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE): SONG: Come to Marineland, come see the falls!
NARRATION: Fans loved the spectacle and then Free Willy hit theaters, focusing attention on the plight of whales like Keiko.
ARCHIVAL (PBS, FRONTLINE, 11-11-97): NAOMI ROSE: There is just no way that a facility can provide for these animals. They have a whole ocean, and the very very rich environment that the ocean provides.
SUSAN ORLEAN (STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER): Keiko was probably the only whale that anybody could name.
DAVE PHILLIPS: He became a symbol, a powerful symbol, of trying to do something right for whales.
NARRATION: So activists Dave Phillips and Naomi Rose waged a public campaign to make Keiko the first captive killer whale returned to the wild.
DAVE PHILLIPS: If Keiko could be returned to the wild, then pretty much any other orca in captivity could be returned to the wild.
NARRATION: But freeing Keiko would take money lots of it.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 11-26-98): WOMAN: Information on the back
NARRATION: So Phillips tapped into the heart of Keikos fanbase.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 11-26-98):BOY: You can order the Keiko adoption kit and become part of Keikos family.
DAVE PHILLIPS: There were kids in schools that were having fundraisers and carwashes and sending their money in, a dollar here and ten dollars there.
NARRATION: Phillips also raised millions from Warner Brothers, the Humane Society and cell phone billionaire Craig McCaw to build a $7.3 million rehab tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
ARCHIVAL (PBS, FRONTLINE, 11-11-97): CRAIG MCCAW: This will not be stopped for lack of money.
NAOMI ROSE: It was very clear that the public wanted Willy to be free. And Im not ashamed to say we took advantage of that. How else are going to shift these paradigms. How else are you going to change the world unless you take advantage of the windows that open?
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 11-26-98):JUDY MULLER: Once lowered into his new tank, a tank four times the size of his former digs, an enormous cheer went up.
NARRATION: But there was one major problem. For Keiko to survive in the ocean, he had to learn to be a wild whale again. The challenge fascinated the public.
JEFF FOSTER (KEIKOS FORMER TRAINER): When he was in Mexico City, he couldnt hold his breath for two minutes. We had to teach him to hold his breath comparable to wild whales. We had to teach him to swim more.
NARRATION: They also had to teach Keiko to hunt. No easy task for a whale who had been hand-fed frozen fish for most of his life.
SUSAN ORLEAN: I mean, youre talking about something really bizarre, which was human beings teaching a whale to be a whale. And the fact that maybe we arent able to do that is, I think in its own way a very good lesson in humility.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 1-7-96): CAROL LIN: Despite the good intentions, there is no scientific evidence that this very expensive experiment will work.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 8-14-98): RUSTY DORNIN: Most North Atlantic Killer Whales use complex behaviors to herd and stun their prey, things about which Keiko doesnt have a clue.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 12-13-03): MAN: Hes about as releasable to the open ocean as I am.
NARRATION: But by 1998 Phillips and Foster were convinced Keiko could survive in the ocean. So 19 years after he was first captured, Keiko was flown home to Iceland.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-6-98): CAPTAIN CHRIS WIGGANS: Its like really like any other mission that we do do, other than the fact that were carrying, you know, obviously, a whale.
JEFF FOSTER: The benefactor, Craig McCaw, wanted to make sure that we gave Keiko every opportunity we possibly could. We had close to 20 people working for us, and we had boats. Then finally we ended up with a helicopter to be able to track Keiko from a distance and to observe wild whales and try to figure out what their movement patterns were.
NARRATION: But Keikos best chance for survival depended on finding his original family.
DAVE PHILLIPS: We tried collecting skin samples of wild whales and seeing if there were any genetic ties. We tried acoustic recordings of the wild pods.
JEFF FOSTER: We would take Keiko out, put him in close proximity where those whales were.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-4-01):JEFF FOSTER: Keiko is swimming alongside the platform. He is looking in that direction where the wild whales are.
JEFF FOSTER: And for this first time that hed heard wild whales in 20 years. You could tell he was curious – he wanted to play, he wanted to be involved with the social structure in those pods. But he was a confused animal. He was dependent on people.
SUSAN ORLEAN: When I got to Iceland, I asked people, why not just consider this a really good sort of end point for the project. Hes no longer captive, but hes not going to be forced into this life that hes maybe not ever going to understand. And the fact is that it was unsustainable financially.
NARRATION: In Iceland, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation was spending more than $3.5 million a year to maintain Keiko.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 9-24-99): SHEILA MACVICAR: After a year in his pen in a bay, the whale is as dependent as ever on humans.
NARRATION: But the funding dried up in early 2002 when Craig McCaw lost millions in the dot-com crash. The Humane Society took over the project with a bare bones budget and a new tough-love policy.
NAOMI ROSE: The tough love protocol was very simple. It was dont make eye contact with him when hes out there with the wild whales. Dont talk to him. If he approaches the boat, turn your back, go below, go into the cabin. You need to do that if you want to accomplish the goal of having him be independent.
NARRATION: Foster worried this new strategy would jeopardize Keikos health.
JEFF FOSTER: I wish it was as easy as having him jump over a breakwater and swimming off. They wanted him released at all costs and the cause got in the way of doing the right thing.
NARRATION: With fewer resources available, Foster quit the project. But by the summer of 2002, it looked like the whole experiment was about to pay off.
DAVE PHILLIPS: Keiko was with a pod of wild whales and the boat went to shore, and when they came back Keiko was not with the pod.
NAOMI ROSE: So we went up in a plane, and we actually did catch his radio signal but we didnt see him. And then he was gone.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 20/20, 1-24-03): DAVE PHILLIPS: This may be the real thing. This may be the real deal. Is he really making the decision to choose whales over people?
NARRATION: A month later, the answer surfaced.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 20/20, 1-24-03): LYNN SHERR: It seemed that almost a decade of relocation and retraining had paid off. But on the first of September Keiko showed up here, off the coast of Norway. And he was following not a pod of killer whales, but some very startled humans. IVAR OREN (FISHERMAN): He come up like this LYNN SHERR: The five-ton orca terrified the fishermen, but soon Keiko enchanted them and thousands of other visitors to the tiny village of Halsa.
DAVE PHILLIPS: He was caught between two worlds. He was prepared to handle life out in the wild. And he spent twenty-two years in captivity with people, and that characterized the rest of his life.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 12-13-03): BOB WOODRUFF: And finally tonight, a farewell to a beloved creature of the sea. You may remember Keiko from the Free Willy movies. Well, he died this weekend in the frigid waters off of Norway.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 12-13-03):RICHARD GIZBERT: He had pneumonia and deteriorated quickly. He was addicted to us and after the way the movies made people feel, many of us were addicted to him.
NAOMI ROSE: It is true that his reintegration into the wild, was a complete failure, absolutely, but he lived for five years in Iceland and Norway. Im not sure he would have lived all of those years even in Oregon. He certainly wouldnt have lived all of those years in Mexico. So I think if you look at it that way, then it was a success.
NARRATION: But the failure to reintegrate Keiko into the wild cost over $20 million and has hindered the long term campaign to free other captive killer whales.
JEFF FOSTER: Because it wasnt a Hollywood success story, there has been some hesitation to do projects like this ever since then.
NARRATION: Activists have mounted other campaigns with little success. In 2012, European courts weighed against freeing a whale named Morgan. And a recent documentary about the death of a SeaWorld trainer raised new questions about keeping killer whales in captivity. But nothing has captured the publics attention the way Keiko did after Free Willywas released 20 years ago.
SUSAN ORLEAN: The fact is there are lots of other animals also living in crummy, inadequate housing, but they dont star in movies about being returned to the wild.
NAOMI ROSE: Keiko was not the best candidate for a rehabilitation or release project. But, he was the only candidate.
SUSAN ORLEAN: Celebrity is so alluring and so attractive, even if its a whale, you find yourself doing things that are maybe not entirely logical.