Freeing Willy

In the wake of the 1993 hit movie Free Willy, activists and fans campaigned to release the movie’s star – a captive killer whale named Keiko – and launched a story Hollywood couldn’t invent.

In the summer of 1993, “Free Willy” thrilled moviegoers with the tale of a 12-year-old boy who returns a captive, performing killer whale to the wild. But when activists and fans campaigned to free the real whale that played Willy, the story got complicated.

The real Willy was named Keiko, and though Hollywood made him a surprise celebrity, fame didn’t change his day job. Underweight and ailing, he continued to perform listless stunts for crowds at a Mexico City theme park.

But the movie focused attention on Keiko’s plight, and led activists to campaign for his release. School kids kicked in pennies, while a cell phone tycoon gave millions. Their efforts got Keiko out of Mexico – and into rehab tank on the Oregon coast, where trainers taught Keiko the ways of the wild.

Activists hoped to free Keiko – like Willy in the movie – into the ocean where he’d find his family, swim off happily into the sunset and set a precedent for freeing other captive whales. But unlike the Hollywood version, freeing Keiko would take a lot more than just a jump over the breakwater.

  • Producer: Joshua Fisher
  • Reporter: Olivia Katrandjian
  • Editor: Bret Sigler