“Imagine… If the world you live in… The space you breathe in… And the freedom you play in… Was suddenly taken away…” So goes the original trailer for Free Willy, one of the most iconic summer movies of the last thirty years.
Willy hit theaters on this day, July 16, back in 1993. And in many ways, this 90s staple was ahead of its time. For modern audiences wanting to revisit, Free Willy almost feels a direct precursor to 2013’s BlackFish, the American documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. That film would touch on Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld, and led to worldwide attention and controversy over captive killer whales. Something Willy clearly wanted to say twenty years earlier.
Within, Jason James Richter plays Jesse, the young hero of Willy’s tale. Jesse learns that Willy’s aquarium plans to kill him, and risks everything to save the orca.
The heart of Free Willy, though, is in the title. Willy himself was portrayed by Keiko, an orca taken captive off the coast of Iceland in 1979.
The orca we humans remember as Keiko would be taken captive at the age of two. His first given name was Siggi, dubbed so at the Icelandic Aquarium in Hafnarfjörður. Later, he would be renamed Kago.
Keiko would first obtain this name, which means “lucky one” in Japanese, after his transfer to Reino Aventura. This was an amusement park in Mexico wholly unfit to care for killer whales. Before this, Keiko would reside at Ontario, Canada’s Marineland. There, he would develop skin lesions from poor human care. Throughout all of his stays in this part of life, Keiko would perform for and with humans, coming to rely on them for everything from food to critical socialization.
The Tragic Tale of ‘Free Willy’s Keiko the Orca
Such tragic circumstances would plague the Free Willy icon for the majority of his life. Things took a turn, however, in 1993 when Keiko was found by film scouts in his run-down Mexico tank intended for dolphins.
While still captive, Keiko would star in Free Willy and bring worldwide attention to his plight. As a result, Warner Bros. Studio would spearhead the effort to secure Keiko a better home. Eventually, Keiko would find it in Oregon in 1996.
There, Keiko was kept in a new 2,000,000-gallon seawater concrete enclosure. It would be the first seawater of his life since his capture at age 2. Here, the Free Willy icon would put on considerable weight as he received the first appropriate care of his lifetime.
This led to conservationists calling for Keiko’s release back into Iceland’s oceanic waters. Unfortunately, his life in captivity made it impossible for Keiko to adapt. Tragically, Keiko would die on December 12, 2003 in Taknes Bay, Norway.
“Until his death Keiko was, rather than frolicking freely in his fjord, being taken for ‘walks’ by caretakers in a small boat at least three times a week,” reads The Guardian‘s report on Keiko’s death at the time.
“It took more than 60 failed attempts to reunite Keiko with free orcas before he followed a group where, spotting a fishing vessel off the Norwegian coast, he followed it into the fjords that would prove his final resting place.”
As for the beloved real-life Free Willy‘s cause of death, history books cite pneumonia.