How Keiko from 'Free Willy' Earned His Freedom

'Free Willy' Might Be a Feel-Good Movie About a Boy and his Killer Whale, But the Real-Life Story is Far from It.

Let's be honest: we all cried during Free Willy (I'm not crying, YOU are crying!). This 1993 classic film by Warner Brothers is about a good-at-heart, but spiritually lost, young boy named Jesse who unexpectedly befriends a killer whale, and the beautiful friendship that blossomed between the marine mammal and the boy. Spoiler alert: Jesse eventually frees the orca into the ocean to be back with his family.

This tear-jerker of a movie became an instant box-office smash hit in Hollywood, making the star of Free Willy, Jason James Richter (Jesse), catapult to A-list status, and bringing awareness to captive orcas. But did you know that Free Willy is based on a true story? Yes folks, grab your tissues, as the true story behind the classic 1993 film is not a happy one.

The Story of Keiko

The 1993 movie was based on a true story about an orca named Keiko, who was also the real-life killer whale star in Free Willy. Keiko was captured from the wild near Iceland in the year 1979 when he was only two-years-old, and like his on-screen portrayal, he was placed in marine exhibitions in aquatic theme parks and amusement parks. After a while of being in Icelandic and Canadian marine parks, he was later found exhibiting and performing in an amusement park in Mexico City, where he lived for 11 years in a dilapidated, rusty tank that was just 12-feet deep. Keiko was still in Mexico when Hollywood found him for his starring role as "Willy" in Free Willy.

What Happened After 'Free Willy'?

After the smash hit came out, it became apparent to the public that the star of Free Willy was, actually, quite miserable - understandable, living in a small tank under poor conditions in Mexico City will do that. It was then when the mission was set: they needed to "free Keiko"; rescuing the captive orca from his small tank in Mexico. The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation was founded to spearhead Keiko's journey back with the other wild orcas, releasing Keiko in the wild just like his movie character "Willy". In 1996, Keiko was transported to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. He was put in a tank, that was four-times his tank in Mexico, for rehabilitation before being released to the wild - then in 1998, Keiko was taken to Iceland where he began training for his return to be with other wild killer whales. In July 2002, after a five-year campaign helping Keiko adapt to his natural habitat in the wild, the once-captive orca was released. In September, he was reported to have reached Norway, and by November, Keiko was already traveling in the remote part of Norway, the Taknes Fjord. However, at this point, Keiko still relied on human beings - with his handlers still feeding him in order for Keiko to stay alive.

Sadly, Keiko's death came in December 2003, when the orca died of pneumonia at the age of 27. If you want to read more on the true story of "Willy", Mark Simmons' "Killing Keiko" is an interesting read.

Do you remember the movie, 'Free Willy' and did you know the real story behind it? Please let us know in the comments below!

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