The role of Willy was played by a male whale, Keiko. Sadly, his life was less happy than the life of his character. When a little calf, he was caught in a net near the coast of Iceland, in 1979. Then he lived in aquariums in Iceland, Canada and finally in Mexico. Keiko had to entertain people and his performances were always successful, but the Mexican aquarium was too small and warm for the animal from the north.
Soon Keiko fell seriously ill. His trainers and animal keepers insisted that Keiko should be transported to a spacious Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, in the north-west of the USA, where the climate was more suitable for the whale. There, Keiko was chosen by the film directors to play the role of Willy in the film Free Willy.
The films about Willy made Keiko popular with people in many countries. Also, Warner Brothers initiated the Free Keiko campaign. Thousands of volunteers collected money for the whale. As a result, Oregon Aquarium got seven million dollars to build special facilities for Keiko that could help him become strong and healthy enough to live in the wild.
Medical treatment, however, was not the only problem. Keiko had spent twenty years with people and had become really tame. The whale liked swimming around the pool with his trainers, carrying them along and performing tricks. Keiko had learned how to communicate with people but he had completely forgotten how to hunt. Trainers always had enough fresh fish for him!
In 1998 the UPS Company took the responsibility to transport Keiko to the coast of Iceland. The whale weighed three tons and they had to use a military plane for him. When Keiko got to Iceland, he went into the sea quickly. Specialists hoped he would soon find a new family and adapt to the wild environment. Otherwise he could die.
Volunteers were monitoring Keiko’s routes. Four days after Keiko was set free, he returned to the coast in search of people. Specialists let him go again and in 2002 he was seen in a family of whales leaving the waters of Iceland. Unfortunately, the same year he was noticed very close to the Norwegian coast line, swimming and jumping among holiday makers.
Keiko never adapted to the natural lifestyle. Besides, his health was getting worse. He died from pneumonia in 2003. A special memorial to Keiko was constructed in Norway. In Japanese “keiko” means “lucky”, but Keiko’s fate was rather controversial.