Free Willy was never really free

An Orca in the wildIt seems romantic to release captive animals, but I often wonder how long they last in the wild. Life for wild animals is tough enough – animals released from captivity must really struggle.

It seems that was the case with Willy (aka Keiko) the star of the movie Free Willy. New Scientist outlines the story in this article.


  • The whale’s name was Keiko
  • He was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979 at about 2 years old
  • He then spent 10 years alone in a tank in Mexico
  • After the 1993 public pressure mounted to free Keiko and in 2000 he was transferred back to Iceland
  • He lived in a pen and was trained to swim out to sea with his trainers
  • He briefly interacted with wild orcas but stayed away from them in general
  • After his initial release he turned up in his pen 10 days later with an empty stomach (they tested)
  • He eventually migrated to Norway but started seeking out humans and soon became overwhelmed by the attention he generated
  • He was taken back to his pen in Iceland where he lived out his days. Even though the pen was open to the ocean he never left the bay again until his death in 2003