Free Keiko, The Orca Rescue

keikoReminder: Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Please join me for the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

Hello, readers, and welcome back! This week I will be delving into a story about orcas. Cetus Finalis does contain significant orca encounters, but today’s story is about a different orca, one orca in particular: Keiko, the orca who played Willy in Warner Brothers’ Free Willy.

There is much to learn about the language and culture of toothed whales. Orcas in particular have ancient, elaborate social relationships. They have small, intermediate, and large group organization, like kin, tribes, and towns, with distinctive surnames for each. They possess complex knowledge transferred through sonic communication. Like humans, their childhood is long -not quite as long, but long- for there is much to teach. Et cetera. I don’t wanna pump you too full of more whale facts (ask away if you want to know!).

A Sea World MomentKeiko was a captive whale, put into a concrete pool at the age of two years, and trained for the next 20 years to bellyflop, tailsplash the crowd, sing tunes, kiss spectators, and ferry human trainers around her pool. She was fed fish for doing tricks, and that behavior was reinforced until she was well gone into biological adulthood. Her teeth were ground down from gnawing at her concrete pool out of stupid, isolated, nervousness, like a chew toy. Her dorsal fin flopped until its tip touched her flank. One of the things that may keep a dorsal fin upright is use, by actually swimming forward at speed in the open ocean, which Keiko had never done.

Keiko, with floppy dorsal fin.

Keiko, with floppy dorsal fin.

Of course Keiko was not freed when Willy was. She was a pool whale. She’d never make it out there. Nevertheless, there was a massive uproar from child fans and their concerned, obedient, fetishizing parents. Naturally, the public opinion was that Keiko must be freed. How hypocritical to use her as an actor in a story of ocean release, they cried, then not release her into the ocean. (As if Harrison Ford wears a bullwhip at home now that he’s played Indiana Jones.) Make Keiko free, don’t just let me glamorize Willy’s fictitious freedom, that’s too galling. Free the actor, also.

Art by Indieferdie

Art by Indieferdie

Eventually, a plan was put into place to free Keiko. It would take three years of untraining and acculturation. It was a tall order, and the whale lovers gave it their best shot, to please the children. They moved her to a large retraining pool, and stopped feeding her fish from a bucket, but instead releasing live fish. Keiko gradually learned to eat live fish. She experimented with her echo location. She strengthened her muscles, grew a few inches, put on a couple of thousand pounds.

Keiko's Bay, Iceland

Then she was satellite tagged and moved to a tiny natural bay in Iceland, barricaded so that she could live in it alone, catch her own food, and touch the sea floor for the first time in her life. From here the plan was to encourage her into the company of her kind. For three summers she lived in her nook of bay, with a gate in the net fence so she could go out and actually try to meet other orca. She would never thrive if she could not join a pod. For three summers, the pods resisted her. Sometimes she was ignored by orca groups, sometimes driven off. Sometimes a pod would let her hang around for a while, but she would return to the gated bay and try to interact with the humans on hand, jumping for them, swimming to be petted by the only family she’d ever known.

free-willyAt one point, a boat of untrainers escorted her to the company of a large group of orcas, probably multiple pods congregating for reasons we can only infer. Keiko made more attempts to approach or relate to the group, but became overwhelmed and returned to the boat, cruised along side it as they returned to shore. She leapt, breaching and landing on her back, as if to say “Hey, this is what we do together. Isn’t this what we do together? What’s going on?” It’s always been what they did together, she and the humans. She jumped, and they loved her and fed her. Three summers wasn’t going to break that Stockholm syndrome bond.

Art by Okura-d7d7szi

Art by Okura-d7d7szi

For an animal with such a long childhood and complex language to be reared and trained entirely isolated, surrounded by an alien species, she had no idea how orca lived, though she was one. She didn’t speak a lick of their language, let alone their dialect, (for different regional tribes of orcas have distinguishable dialects. Distinguishable even to the human researches who have only recently begun to study them in depth, at depth). She didn’t have a name or a mother, or any kin to sing of. She couldn’t hunt, didn’t know any of the games, and never had a single relationship or social interaction with another orca. The only beings she ever loved, her domesticators, were obviously pushing her away, but she didn’t know what to do. After those three summers, she eventually swam off into the open ocean with a passing group of orcas, perhaps getting the point.

freeingkeikokillingkeikoImagine capturing a two year old girl, raising her on a raft with pod of orcas, feeding her captured raw fish, building relations exclusively based on food, nuzzles, and mutual incomprehensibility. Then, when the girl is 21, drop her off in Kansas City, in her own diner for a couple of years, so she learns how to make grilled cheeses. Then open the diner to the public and send her off to start a family. All she speaks is a few weird clicks and whistles. Her brain development hampered for so long it is likely irreversible. She knows nothing about reading, music, speech, or sex. What would happen to her? How would people treat this person? She’d be a crazy homeless person in short order, mumbling learned mimicked snippets of human speech, maybe hanging out at the ocean a lot, once she’d found it, hoping her affectionate adoptive family would return.

The cairn of stones marking Keiko's grave

The cairn of stones marking Keiko’s grave

In time, Keiko swam 1,000 or so miles from her release bay in Iceland to the coast of Norway. Uncharacteristically gregarious, she coaxed local fisherman into feeding her, which felt natural. She also taught other local orcas in her adoptive pod to beg for food from humans. It’s curious to think she brought that captive knowledge into the wild. (Will future orcas beg for fish?) She stuck around and played with little children, and found humans who would feed her and pet her, all she’d ever known. In 2003, about 1 year after her “release,” she died of a pneumonia related disease, at the young age (even for an orca) of 24.

You can visit, but you can't stay.

You can visit, but you can’t stay.

After the episode ended, Keiko’s predicament sank in deeper and deeper, for days afterword, deep enough to end up here writing about it. I’m not here to come to any conclusions about it, but it’s a story worth knowing, about a form of “alien” intelligence right here on Earth, under our noses, which we know next to nothing about.

Thank you for reading! Reading rules.

Reminder: Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Please join me for the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

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About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Books, Reflection and Personal Knowledge, Science and Nature, Sociey and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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