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Keiko, the Most Famous Whale in the World, Dies in Norway


December 13, 2003
Saturday - 12:50 am

The Free Willy Keiko Foundation and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reported Friday that Keiko, the orca whale, died Friday in the Taknes fjord, Norway, in the company of staff members who have been caring for him there.

Keiko's veterinarian believes that acute pneumonia is the most likely cause of death, though he also cited that Keiko was the second oldest male orca whale ever to have been in captivity.

Keiko, the orca whale that starred in the 1993 film "Free Willy," is seen here swimming in the Norwegian waters in the summer of 2002. The Free Willy Keiko Foundation and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reported that Keiko died Friday. The whale's veterinarian believes that acute pneumonia is the most likely cause of death.
Photo courtesy Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)...

The two organizations managing Keiko's reintroduction effort expressed sadness at Keiko's death while also heralding his amazing journey.

David Phillips, president and founder of the Free Willy - Keiko Foundation stated, "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." He continued: "Keiko was a champion; the most incredible whale."

Paul Irwin, president of The HSUS added: "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."

Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko's lead veterinarian and a world renowned expert on orca care, stated: "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." He continued: "We have monitored Keiko's health very closely, and until only a day ago his appetite, activity and blood tests were all excellent."

Thursday, Keiko exhibited signs of lethargy and lack of appetite. Consultation was continuous between his caretakers and Dr. Cornell. His behavior was still abnormal Friday morning and his respiratory rate was irregular, but unfortunately these were apparently advanced signs of his condition. It is often the case that caretakers of whales and dolphins are unaware of a problem until the animal is near death, as wild animals often mask illness to avoid predation or loss of social status. With little warning, Keiko beached himself and died in the early evening local time.

A decade ago, Keiko was featured in the Hollywood movie, Free Willy, prompting a worldwide effort to rescue him from poor health, in an attempt to allow him to be the first orca whale ever returned to the wild.

In 1996 Keiko was flown aboard a United Parcel Service plane to a new rehabilitation facility in Newport, Oregon. There he was returned to health and trained in the skills necessary to be a wild whale. In late 1998, Keiko was flown in a U.S. Air Force jet to a sea-pen in Iceland. In the summer of 2002, Keiko joined the company of wild whales and swam nearly 1000 miles to the Norwegian coast. Since then, Keiko has been cared for in a fjord where he was free to come and go by his own choice.

Keiko inspired millions of children to get involved in following his amazing odyssey and helping other whales. Keiko's journey also inspired a massive educational effort around the world and formed the basis for several scientific studies. Thousands of people traveled to Norway in the past year to see Keiko, continuing his legacy as the most famous whale in the world.

Phillips stated: "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."

Irwin stated: "From the beginning, we did the right thing for Keiko and we intend to continue the fight to keep whales free."

More information about Keiko and a timeline of his amazing journey to freedom can be found on the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) web site at



Sources of News Release & Photo:

Free Willy-Keiko Foundation; and
Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)


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