Published August 22, 2003




By the time of his first public appearance at Marineland, Ontario, Canada in 1982, he was billed as Kago. Why Siggi wasn’t good enough is open to conjecture.

Young Kago was shy and picked on by the female killer whales in Ontario. His mounting psychological scars soon showed themselves through a stress-related skin rash. The breaks just kept coming and he was sold and shipped off to Mexico City in 1985. He probably didn’t join in the laughter when it was revealed that Kago is Spanish slang for Shit. So, to soften the humiliation just a bit, he was renamed Keiko, another Japanese girl name meaning “Lucky One…” and how!
He would spend eight years in the barrio entertaining Mexican audiences before his big film break in Free Willy. From this celebrity exposure grew an often bizarre crusade and industry for which a whale can’t be blamed.

It was decided by everyone but the Mexican kids that Keiko must go. There is a historical soap opera surrounding the when, where and how of getting Keiko out of Mexico. The why, briefly, was most legitimately for health reasons. His accommodation wasn’t fitting for such a majestic creature, especially a box-office hit.

In October of 1993 Michael Jackson offered to adopt the whale and build a tank for him at his Neverland Ranch in California. There Keiko would be retired and not perform for the public, but maybe occasionally for the personal amusement of MJ and Bubbles the Chimp. Fortunately, the bad luck whale avoided becoming the Macaulay Culkin of the animal kingdom.

Keiko, poster child for orphaned sea mammals the world over, was adopted by his public and a particularly rich philanthropist. Keiko’s Daddy Warbucks was a cell-phone billionaire who read about our hero’s predicament in the Wall Street Journal. This means a good many of the millions spent on Keiko that the public likes to cry over were made possible by the great mobile phone boom that has now completely possessed Iceland.

On 7 January 1996, having been donated to a foundation set up to reintroduce him to the wild, Keiko is flown from Mexico City to Oregon. As he leaves his home of eleven years by truck for the airport, 100,000 local well-wishers turn out. In America, Keiko becomes the first Mexican immigrant to be met with a warm welcome.

Keiko is studied and pampered in Oregon. He returns to a healthy weight and his lingering skin ailment clears up. Recording his calls and comparing them to those of North Atlantic orcas, some researchers decide that he speaks Icelandic killer whale.

Keiko’s trainers introduce him to television. His favourite film? Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
In June 1998 Prime Minister David Oddsson accuses the U.S. of abducting a citizen of Iceland. If he is not returned to Iceland by September, David says, the island will take civil action against the US Government. A terrified America immediately begins plans to use its Air Force to fly Keiko back to Iceland.

On 9 September 1998 Keiko is flown direct from Oregon to Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), Iceland with two mid-air refuelings in the US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III. The Globemaster earns the slogan, “The only plane in the world that can deliver a whale to such a little runway.” Indeed, something to be proud of. The Air Force reportedly authorized the mission as a gesture of good will, because any country that helps an international celebrity like Keiko can’t be all bad.

The next nearly four years are spent in the Westman Islands where he has his own private lagoon. He takes a lot of “ocean walks” followed closely by boat. The team manages to break him from so much hand feeding and he hunts live herring, though the question whether he feeds well enough to sustain himself remains. Keiko meets up with an occasional pod (that’s like a herd) of wild orcas but seems a bit weird to them. That his cousins find him odd when they first meet him might have something to do with the Monty Python jokes. Have you ever tried explaining the Holy Grail to someone who’s never watched those guys? It might take a while.

At the end of July 2002, a bit more than a year ago, Keiko swims away from the Westmans on his own. He is tracked using satellite and radio tags and makes reasonable daily progress heading east. He shows up along the coast of Norway on the first of September, apparently tired out after the big swim over from Iceland and doesn’t feel like doing much. His project team comes to give him a physical and get him moving again. Norway likes him and the government makes rules to keep people from getting too close and treating him like a pet again. A little girl who knows but one song on her harmonica, Michael Jackson’s theme to Free Willy, arrives to play the tune for Keiko. He responds with what some call his complete attention. It is more likely that the tune reminds him that he was almost taken away by that freak and the “Lucky One” has merely paused in thankful reflection.

It’s the very thing people find most annoying about Keiko that kids love; the same sappy sweetness associated with Barney the Purple Dinosaur, Jar Jar Binks and the Teletubbies / Stubbarnir, heaven forbid. These examples are complete fabrications of man and worthy of our hate. Keiko, on the other hand, is an amazing animal that most of us can respect on that level. What really brings a tear to my eye though, is the vision of all those little Mexican kids, lined up on the walking bridge over the highway, waving goodbye to their old friend Shit. With the same sentiment, I salute the Icelandic kids who will continue to cut pictures of Keiko out of the newspaper and take them to school for current events day.
What’s the difference between Pinocchio and Keiko? Pinocchio was made into an ass, gobbled up by a whale and turned into a child. Keiko is a whale made into an ass and gobbled up by the kids.

Thank you, Howard Garrett of Orca Network for your painstaking and informative Keiko timeline.

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