Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the “Free Willy” movies, died on Dec. 12 from pneumonia. He was 27.
Born in the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland, the whale whose name means “Lucky One” in Japanese, was captured in 1979 and held in an Icelandic aquarium. He was sold twice, first to Marineland in Ontario where he became a performing animal, then to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City. Because his tank was too small, the 6-ton, 35-foot-long mammal suffered.
In 1993, he starred in the first of three “Free Willy” movies, which became box office hits and gave the whale’s plight international attention. The project to rehabilitate Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, then reintegrate him with a pod of wild killer whales, cost more than $20 million.
After being airlifted to Iceland, Keiko was released in 2002. Instead of joining his own kind, however, Keiko swam 870 miles in search of human companionship. He found it near the village of Halsa, Norway. There Keiko allowed fans to pet and play with him until animal protection authorities imposed a ban on the practice.