It was a hell of a time to be in Iceland, although by most accounts it is always a hell of a time to be in Iceland, where the wind never huffs or puffs but simply blows your house down. This was early in August, and it was stormy, as usual, but the summer sun did shine a little, and the geysers burped blue steam and scalding water, and the glaciers groaned as they shoved tons of silt a few centimetres closer to the sea. On the water, the puffins frolicked, the hermit crabs frolicked, and young people bloated with salmon jerky and warm beer barfed politely into motion-sickness buckets on the ferry sailing across Klettsvik Bay. The young people were on their way to an annual songfest and drinkathon on the Westman Islands, a string of volcanic outbreaks off Iceland’s southern coast. During the trip, they spoke in Icelandic about Icelandic things, like whether they had remembered bottle openers and bandannas, and then they turned greenish and stopped talking as the boat lurched up and down the huge cold waves. After two hours or so, the waves settled and the boat slowed and glided into Heimaey Harbor, which is ringed by cliffs of old lava as holey as Swiss cheese. Dozens of trawlers and knockabouts bobbed at their moorings, nudging the docks and making that clanging sound that is supposed to make you feel lonely.
A few of the young people, gummy-mouthed and bleary-eyed, roused themselves and gazed out the portholes. We sailed past a row of white buoys strung across the mouth of a small bay.
“Hey! Keiko!” one girl exclaimed, pointing at the buoys.
“Huh?” another mumbled, looking where the first one was pointing. “Keiko?”
“Willy! Free Willy!”
“Oh, Keiko!” the others said, pushing up to the window, yanking each other’s sleeves and gawking at nothing but the empty inlet, the glassy water, the blank, looming cliffs. “Keiko! Oh, yeah! Oh, wow!”
The whale was gone, of course; he left in early July, after taking a watery journey with his human overseers to look at other whales — his kin, if not his kith — who had stopped near the Westman Islands for a midsummer feast. Keiko had seen wild whales before, having originally been one himself, and he had been reintroduced to them two years ago, after twenty years of captivity. He watched the visiting whales from a shy distance at first and a bolder one later, but he always returned to the boat that had led him out to open water. Back at his private pen in the harbor, an international staff of humans would massage his fin, scratch his tongue, and compose press releases detailing his experiences at sea. This July, however, Keiko ventured closer to the whales than ever, and then followed them when they headed off past Lousy Bank, past the Faeroe Islands, onward to — well, honestly, who knows? Whales keep their own counsel. The truth about them is that they come and go, and you can’t really know where they’ve gone — unless you’ve already fished them out of the water, drilled holes in their dorsal fins, and hung radio tags on them. Only a madman would suggest that drilling a hole in a whale’s dorsal fin is easy. This is why no one is sure where the creatures that visit Iceland every summer spend the winter — and where, presumably, they were heading late in July.
But Keiko — which means “lucky one” in Japanese — is the most watched whale in the world. He has a satellite tag and a VHF transmitter and three nonprofit organizations vested in him, along with millions of spectators, waiting to see if this famous, accomplished, celebrated whale, who has lived most of his life as a pet, will take to the wild. Every day that Keiko is on his own, his location is tracked by satellite, relayed over the Internet, and then plotted on a marine chart in the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation offices in the Westman Islands, a row of neatly pencilled “X”s tracing his arcing route through the sea.
What is known about Keiko is this: he is an Orcinus orca, commonly called the orca or killer whale; weighing as much as ten thousand pounds, the orca is the largest member of the dolphin family — big mouth, big teeth, big appetite. Like humans, orcas can kill and eat almost anything they choose. What they usually choose is herring, salmon, or cod, but some orcas prefer to eat sea lions, walruses, and other whales. They have been known to neatly skin a full-grown minke whale, bite off its dorsal fin, and eat only its tongue, a behavior that has been construed as either a tendency toward ostentatious epicurean wastefulness or a cross-species reenactment of an Aztec virgin sacrifice. Orcas seem to have no taste for humans. Only two people have ever been killed by captive killer whales, and both deaths involved the same whale, Sea World’s Tillikum, who held his victims underwater to drown them but did not eat them afterward. Orcas are found in every ocean on the planet and have enjoyed relative invulnerability from hunting; they are twenty times less blubbery than sperm whales and have therefore been less valued for oil, and their meat is far less tender and flavorful than that of minke whales. They are, on the other hand, fiercely smart and remarkably educable. They are also handsomely outfitted in black and white with a grayish saddlepatch — more appealing by far than, say, the transcendent horribleness, the blank ghastliness, the strange and awful portentousness of a gigantic white whale. Therein lies the killer whale’s real weakness: its suitability for being displayed and taught to perform silly tricks, made all the more marvellous by its reputation as a ruthless assassin.
In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium commissioned a sculptor to kill an orca to use as a model for an artificial one. An orca was harpooned, but it managed to survive, so the aquarium decided to make the best of the sculptor’s ineptitude and display the live whale rather than build the plastic one. The whale was named Moby Doll. She was the first orca in captivity. She died after eighty-seven days, but had been observed enough to demonstrate the species’s considerable intelligence. More than a hundred and thirty orcas have been captured for display since Moby Doll’s misadventures. Many of them came from Iceland, until all whaling in the country was halted in 1989. Currently, there are about fifty orcas in aquariums and amusement parks around the world, and their scarcity has made them each worth a million dollars or more.
Keiko’s beginnings, however, were humble. He was born near Iceland, in 1977 or 1978, and was captured in 1979. For a few years, he lived in a down-in-the-mouth aquarium outside Reykjavik, which raised most of its money by catching and selling killer whales to other aquariums. In 1982, Keiko was sold to Marineland, a park in Niagara Falls, Ontario. There he was bullied by older whales, and in 1985 Marineland sold him to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City.
The whale facility at Reino Aventura was too small, too shallow, and too warm for an orca. There were also no other whales to keep Keiko company. He developed an unsightly pimply condition around his armpits and had the muscle tone of a wet noodle. He could hold his breath for only three minutes, and wore down his teeth by gnawing the concrete around his tank. He spent much of his time swimming in nihilistic little circles and had a lethargy that some saw as foretokening an early death. In spite of this, and in spite of his droopy dorsal fin (which is symptomatic of nothing, but made him look sad), he was much adored. He, in turn, was fond of children and cameras.
After Dino De Laurentiis’s 1977 disaster epic “Orca,” Hollywood had shown little interest in cetacean films. Into this void, a writer named Keith Walker submitted to the producer Richard Donner a script about a mute orphan boy who lives with nuns and befriends a whale at an amusement park. In Walker’s original script, the boy is silent until the end of the movie, when he releases the whale into the ocean and cries out, “Free Willy!” Donner, an environmentalist and an animal lover, liked the script’s intentions and passed it to his wife, the producer Lauren Shuler Donner, and her partner, Jennie Lew Tugend, for development. Tugend and Shuler Donner thought that the story was too sugary. They rewrote the boy as a juvenile delinquent, the whale as a petulant malcontent, and the amusement-park operator as a penny-pinching crook, but they kept the climactic release.
Once Warner Bros. agreed to underwrite the project, Tugend and Shuler Donner went out to audition the killer whales of the world to play Willy. Twenty-one of the twenty-three orcas in the United States belong to Sea World. The company’s executives reviewed the script, shuddered at the message of whale emancipation, and declared all of its orcas unavailable for movie work. Shuler Donner and Tugend looked further. In Mexico, at Reino Aventura, they found not only Keiko but also a dilapidated facility that would be perfect for the film’s fictional dilapidated facility, as well as park owners who were disposed to let their whale appear in a pro-wild-whale, anti-captivity movie.
“Free Willy,” which was shot on a lean budget of twenty million dollars, had a cast of mostly unknowns, and starred a child actor named Jason James Richter, who was the same age as Keiko: twelve. No one imagined what a success it would become, although Shuler Donner had an inkling when, after an early research screening, a man approached her, held out ten dollars, and said, “Here, use this money to save the whales.”
“Free Willy” pulled in huge audiences right from the start — mostly kids, of course, who insisted on seeing the movie over and over and over, thus answering the movie’s tag-line question, “How far would you go for a friend?,” with a worldwide gross of a hundred and fifty-four million dollars. What’s more, the producers had attached a message at the end of the movie directing anyone interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to Earth Island Institute, an environmental group. The resulting torrent of calls blew the minds of everyone involved — the executives at Warner Bros., the producers, the people at Earth Island Institute. And not just the number of calls but the fact that many of the callers were asking something that hadn’t been anticipated: Sure, save the wild whales, but, more to the point, what about Willy?
“We had no clue that this would involve Keiko as an individual,” David Phillips, of Earth Island Institute, says. “At that point, he was just a prop in the movie. of course, everyone had fallen in love with him. The cast was in love with him. Everyone who gets near him gets Keiko virus.”
Keiko, who had become infected with his own virus — a papillomavirus that had caused the pimply irritation on his skin — was still languishing in Mexico, but now he was in demand. The owners of Reino Aventura didn’t want to part with him, but they recognized that he was in poor health, and possibly even dying. They had already tried to find Keiko another home, having previously offered to sell him to Sea World, but Sea World hadn’t wanted a warty whale. Now, suddenly, everybody wanted him. Michael Jackson sent representatives to Mexico, hoping to acquire Keiko for his ranch. Conservation groups wanted him for this or that aquarium. Scientists asked to keep him in a tank on Cape Cod for research.
David Phillips, with the support of the movie’s producers, had formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, whose mission was to rehabilitate and release Keiko. Reino Aventura’s owners finally chose the foundation over other suitors, and agreed to give Keiko away — but the expense of moving and housing him still had to be met. More than a million people had already contributed to the cause, but in amounts that were usually modest, raised at Free Willy bake sales and by kids breaking open their piggy banks. U.P.S. agreed to fly Keiko free of charge, but the container and other incidentals would cost at least two hundred thousand dollars. Shuler Donner brought several bulging bags of letters to the studio executives — letters demanding to know whether Willy had really been set free and, if he hadn’t, what they were going to do about it. The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation got a million dollars from both Warner Bros. and the film’s other production company, New Regency. The Humane Society of the United States gave another million. Next, the telecommunications tycoon Craig McCaw put in a million, through the Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation.
“Craig’s not really an animal person,” McCaw’s spokesman, Bob Ratliffe, said not long ago. “He’s an environmentalist and is interested in the health of the oceans, and — well, long story short, Craig gives the million bucks. And then he gave another one and a half-million to build a tank for Keiko in Oregon. His intention was never to be as involved as he became, but he really kind of bonded with Keiko. He went swimming with him. He was actually on the whale’s back, and — well, long story short, he got very involved.”
Mexican children cried bitterly when Keiko was loaded onto a U.P.S. truck and taken away in January, 1996, and who could blame them? The park used to allow kids to have pool parties with him in his tank, and now he was leaving for good, travelling thousands of miles north to the Oregon Coast Aquarium. In a documentary film about Keiko, his Reino Aventura trainers, two beautiful young women, were nearly hysterical about his departure, saying he was not just a whale or a job but their closest friend. The truck carrying him to the C-130 Hercules cargo plane moved at a solemn pace with a police escort, as if it were the Popemobile, and more than a hundred thousand people lined the streets at dawn to say goodbye. In Newport, Oregon, the depressed, gray seaside town where the aquarium is situated, there were more crowds and more tears — Willy was almost free! — and there was the gorgeous new $7.3 million tank that the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation had built for him, and the staff of six to care for him, cure him, and get him ready for the big, wide world. Throughout Oregon, there was Keiko-mania, with around-the-clock news reports and Keiko-cams and special sections in the newspaper about the whale, with instructions on how to fold a broadsheet into a whale-shaped cap.
“It was like New Year’s Eve when he arrived,” Ken Lytwyn, the senior mammalogist at the aquarium, said recently, sounding wistful. “I’ve worked with dolphins and sea lions and even other killer whales, but Keiko was. . . different. There was really something there.”
By every measure, Keiko thrived in Newport. His skin cleared up; he gained two thousand pounds; he tasted live fish for the first time since infancy; he had toys to play with and a television set on which he could watch cartoons. His caretakers found him more Labrador retriever than orca: cheerful, affectionate, eager to please — the sort of killer whale who, if you were in the tank and he swam over to see what you were doing, would be careful not to accidentally crush you to death. Attendance at the struggling aquarium rose to an all-time high, and all those visitors, with their demands for snacks and souvenirs and motel rooms and gasoline, buoyed every enterprise around.
Wouldn’t it have been great if Keiko could have stayed there forever? He was then twenty-one years old, a middle-aged piebald virgin living as good a life as captivity could offer. But the plan had always been to free Willy, even though a killer whale had never been set free before. Moreover, Keiko was hardly an exemplary candidate for release. He had been confined for so long, had become so thoroughly accustomed to human contact, and was so much more a diplomat than an executioner that it was hard to imagine him chewing holes in walruses and beating schools of salmon to a pulp with his terrible, awesome tail.
When would Keiko be ready to take the next step toward freedom? Criteria had been set up, benchmarks had been established — Was he eating live fish? Could he swim great distances? Could he hold his breath underwater for a long time? — but, still, right-minded people could disagree. In fact, right-minded people could even litigate, as the Oregon Coast Aquarium did, in 1997, to prevent the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation from moving the whale to Iceland, where he would be decanted into the actual ocean, into an open-water pen in Heimaey Harbor. The aquarium’s position was that Keiko was not ready to leave; the foundation’s position was that (a) Keiko was indeed ready to leave, and (b) he belonged to the foundation, not the aquarium. Relations grew ugly, then hideous. In early October, 1997, the board members of the aquarium requested an independent evaluation of Keiko’s health. A few days later, the Oregon Veterinary Medical Examining Board announced that it would investigate Keiko’s care and the legality of his custody arrangements. There was talk in the Free Willy camp of moving Keiko to a pen in Oregon’s Depoe Bay. Finally, a blue-ribbon panel of experts was formed to analyze Keiko’s well-being and determine his fitness for release. To the dismay of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the run of million-visitor years would soon be over: the panel announced that Keiko was ready and able to go.
Even then, there were skeptics who believed that the effort to free Keiko was doomed. Some of those skeptics also happened to be employed by Sea World, which had been picketed to free their own orcas in the wake of “Free Willy”: they warned that the poor whale would get frostbite if he was exiled to dark, cold, miserable Iceland — this in spite of the fact that Keiko was born in Iceland and that killer whales teemed in the waters offshore. But even among whale people — free-whale people, that is — there was doubt. Keiko, they argued, was already ruined. It was too late to teach him what a wild whale needs to know, and he repeatedly demonstrated an alarming preference for frozen fish over fresh, suggesting that his tastes had become completely corrupted by two decades in a fishbowl. What’s more, there was a conspiracy theory circulating in the most radical anti-captivity ranks that Sea World might actually be behind the free-Keiko efforts, knowing that they would fail, thus inoculating amusement parks around the world from an upwelling of liberationist sentiment.
Skepticism was not the only impediment to moving Keiko to his ancestral home. Consider this: Icelandic fishermen view whales as annoying and gluttonous — blubbery fish-grinders that consume commercial product by the ton. The government has asked the International Whaling Commission to allow regulated whaling again, and Iceland recently accepted the first shipment of Norwegian whale meat in fourteen years. Now imagine that you are David Phillips, of Earth Island Institute, and you represent a telecommunications billionaire, the Humane Society, and Ocean Futures, an environmental group founded by Jean-Michel Cousteau, and you are approaching various Icelandic ministries for permits to construct a million-dollar pen in the harbor; organize a fleet of boats, helicopters, and airplanes; and muster a crew of scientists, veterinarians, and animal trainers for the nurture and eventual discharge of one Keiko, a.k.a. Willy, a whale. Furthermore, the affront of having a whale so coddled in Icelandic waters would not even be offset by the comfort of cold cash, since Keiko would not be on display. There would be no Icelandair travel packages to visit Keiko — he would be living in a pen in the harbor, accessible only by boat, and he would be slowly weaned from human contact to ready him for life among his brethren. “The opposition from the Ministry of Fisheries was fierce,” Phillips said. “This was antithetical to everything they do. There is very little by way of whale-conservation awareness in Iceland, and a lot of hostility toward anything coming from the U.S. So we started looking at other locations, in Ireland and in England, too. But Iceland was Keiko’s home waters and really the best place for him, and, after a long series of complexities, we finally got it approved.”
So now there was another flight to pay for (three hundred and seventy thousand dollars), another pen to build (a million dollars), a staff to recruit and equip and pay. The annual costs of the project in Iceland were estimated at three million dollars; if Keiko never learned to live on his own, the foundation could conceivably be looking after him for thirty more years, at a cost of ninety million dollars. “Along the way, this had become a different kind of project,” Bob Ratliffe, of the Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation, explained. “It was involving planes and helicopters and big boats and major expenses.” But, Ratliffe said, a commitment had been made to the creature, and there was a desire to do something people said couldn’t be done. The flight on an Air Force C-17 was booked, the gallons of diaper-rash ointment to moisturize Keiko during the long flight procured, Familian Industrial Plastics contracted to build the new pen, the staff of fifteen lined up. By September of 1998, it was all ready. The goodbyes were again tearful. Keikomania had rolled on, unabated, since the day the whale arrived in Newport, and two more Willy movies had come out, further inciting whale devotion — “Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home,” and “Free Willy 3: The Rescue” — although these used computer-enhanced footage of wild whales and animatronic models rather than a real Willy.
“I went to his tank and told him goodbye and good luck,” Ken Lytwyn, the Oregon Coast Aquarium mammalogist, recalls. “I would love to see the release work, but, because of who Keiko is, the kind of individual he is, I don’t think it will. I was really sad when they said he was going, but it wasn’t my call.” Ah, the Westman Islands! So raw, so rugged, ripped so recently from the earth’s dermis — in fact, the youngest landmass on the planet may be the little rock pile called Surtsey, the southernmost Westman in the chain, tossed up above sea level only thirteen years before Keiko’s mother conceived him. And as recently as 1973 a volcano erupted right in the middle of Heimaey, increasing the island’s landmass by twenty per cent. To make a living, people in the Westmans fish and they fish and they fish, and a few of them service the small but steady tourist economy. Slogans range from the somewhat inexplicable “Westman Islands, Capri of the North” to the more explicable “Ten Million Puffins Can’t Be Wrong.” Everywhere you look, you see dozens of these stout, clownish black-and-white birds: nesting in lava outcroppings, teetering on cliffs, plopping like stones into the sea. Every August, the baby puffins sail out of their nests to make their first trip on the ocean and instead crash-land in town, seduced by the lights of human civilization. This magical visitation and potential avian catastrophe is known as pysjunaetur — the Night of the Pufflings — and children and visitors await it every summer, armed with cardboard boxes for the rescue effort, and, in the morning, they release the babies at the water’s edge. When full grown, puffins are enjoyed in the Westmans roasted, smoked, or sliced thin, like carpaccio.
The whale was not unwelcome here when he arrived, in September of 1998, even though you couldn’t see him unless you drove up to the ledge across the harbor and looked through a telescope that the foundation had installed; and even though not many local people got jobs; and even though the Keiko merchandise — the shot glasses and aprons and tea cozies decorated with his distinctive black-and-white face — wasn’t flying off the shelves in the souvenir shops. He was met with what was becoming the standard greeting in Keiko’s life — several hundred accredited representatives of the media and scores of ebullient schoolchildren, many of whom had first seen “Free Willy” when an Icelandic hot-dog company gave the video away for free with a six-pack of franks. Everyone, certainly, liked Keiko, admired him for his gentle giantness, for being the good egg who tolerated being crated and shipped hither and thither, for suffering with a sort of martyred calm the strange, fickle circumstances of his life. If anyone thought that the money being spent on his rehabilitation was an insane extravagance, they didn’t blame it on the whale: it wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico. It wasn’t his fault that he became a ten-thousand-pound symbol of promises kept (or