World's Best Known Whale Dies in Norway
OSLO, Norway, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - Acute pneumonia claimed the life of the celebrity orca Keiko on Friday. The star of the 1993 "Free Willy" movie died in Taknes Fjord, Norway at the age of 27, after becoming known around the world as the first orca whale ever rescued from captivity.
Orca care expert Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko’s lead veterinarian, said, "The most likely cause of death is from acute pneumonia, though it must be noted that at age 27, Keiko was one of only two male orca whales ever to have survived past 25 years in captivity."
On Thursday, the whale's caretakers noticed that he was lethargic and did not want food. He was given antibiotics, but was found dead on Friday night after he stopped breathing.
After his rescue from a tiny show pool in a Mexican attraction, millions of dollars and thousands of person-hours were spent in the attempt to rehabilitate Keiko and release him to rejoin wild whales. But Keiko died in the company of his human caretakers, preferring the company of humans to that of other whales to the end.
David Phillips, president and founder of the Free Willy–Keiko Foundation said, "Rescuing Keiko from a cramped pool in Mexico and bringing him back to his home waters is the most spectacular effort ever launched for an animal. Keiko was a champion; the most incredible whale."
On Saturday, officials cordoned off part of Taknes Bay to keep the media and public away from Keiko's six ton corpse. Then on Sunday night, in response to a request from the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation that he be buried on land rather than towed out to sea, the world's best known whale was laid to rest in a grave near the fjord.
In 1979, Keiko was captured off Iceland as a young whale and spent the next 20 years in captivity. He was held in an Icelandic aquarium until 1982 when he was purchased by Marineland in Ontario, Canada, where he became a performing whale.
In 1985, Marineland sold Keiko to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City, where he lived in a small pool and performed for local crowds for the next seven years. Then in 1992, Warner Bros. Studios began filming the movie "Free Willy" on location in Mexico City. The film tells the story of a young boy who saves a whale, portrayed by Keiko.
"Free Willy" was a hit with millions of school children around the world. The subsequent media coverage detailing Keiko's tiny pool and drooping dorsal fin, a sign of declining health, prompted the movie studio, the park, and animal protection advocates to find Keiko a new home. Dr. Cornell assumed the position of Keiko's lead veterinarian.
In 1994, Earth Island Institute, an environmental advocacy group, began to search for a place where Keiko could be rehabilitated and trained for potential release to the wild. The Free Willy Foundation was formed in November 1994 with a $4 million donation from Warner Bros., and Craig McCaw.
Reino Aventura donated Keiko to the new foundation, which then moved the whale to a new, $7.3 million rehabilitation facility at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. There the whale began to recover his health, gain weight and learn to eat live fish for the first time since his capture.
In September 1998, now healthy, Keiko was lifted from his tank and transported by a US Airforce C-17 transport jet from Oregon to Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
During his first full year back in Icelandic waters, now under the care of Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, Keiko continued training to prepare him to move from his protected sea pen back into the wild.
In the year 2000, Keiko was fitted for a tracking device that allowed staff to take him out to the open ocean. Keiko then began to interact with wild orcas near his sea pen.
The next year, Keiko showed behavior consistent with that of wild whales, such as competing with other animals for food. Keiko began to initiate contact with wild orcas in the vicinity and spent several days away from his human companions.
During the summer of 2002 Keiko spent at least a month in and around groups of wild orcas and then traveled some 1,000 miles from Iceland to the Norwegian coast, surviving for nearly 60 days without food from humans.
The first observation of Keiko in Norway showed him in excellent physical condition, according to Dr. Cornell.
Keiko then followed a fishing boat up the Taknes fjord to a spot near the community of Halsa. In the fjord, Keiko was cared for by Dr. Cornell and staff and was free to come and go at will.
He became an attraction for visitors from all over Europe, and his caretakers, together with the Norwegian government, put rules in place to keep people from getting too close to the friendly whale.
The Craig McCaw Foundation and the Ocean Futures Society turned over the management of the project to the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
When notified of Keiko's death, Paul Irwin, president of HSUS and the Humane Society International said from Australia, "Our intention from the very beginning, over a decade ago, was to provide Keiko with the chance for freedom, and that is exactly what he got. He came a long, long way and showed that returning captive whales to the wild is not simply a dream."
Phillips of the Free Willy–Keiko Foundation said, "Keiko was a trailblazer, the first orca whale ever rescued from captivity. There’s still a lot of work to be done to see that captive whales are given a chance to be free. Keiko showed what is possible if these animals are just given the chance."
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