Keiko’s incredible journey
I am writing this in part to counter recent attempts to discredit Keiko’s accomplishments, and the efforts of those who participated in his journey from captivity to freedom, and in part to express my belief that Keiko’s story serves as a beacon of light that shines on the way forward, and out, for captive whales and dolphins.
As one who was privileged to receive reports of Keiko’s location as he made his way across the Atlantic Ocean, from Iceland to Norway, I marveled at his daily progress, wondered if the excursions that took him away from a straight line path were signs that he was pursuing fishing or social opportunities, and speculated about the condition he would be in when he arrived at his final destination. His destination point and arrival time were calculated precisely enough that a project crew was on hand to observe him when he arrived in Norway’s coastal waters. The crew’s assignment was simply to observe Keiko without being noticed, so as not to disturb or distract him. The first reports were enormously encouraging. Keiko was energetic, fit and clearly healthy, all signs that he had been successful in feeding himself. His journey has taken nearly 2 months, and he had traveled nearly 1,000 miles. It was a magnificent feat that laid to rest any doubts that, given the opportunity, Keiko could survive as a free orca in the ocean.
What happened next was unfortunate but it did not detract from Keiko’s accomplishment. After following a boat into a harbour, Keiko was easily identified and quickly became the centre of intense attention from people. Throngs came to see him, and he was soon surrounded on all sides. He stopped feeding himself, and it became obvious that he would need care from people once more. The government of Norway and the community of Taknes generously provided Keiko and his caretakers with a location in a bay where he was completely free to come and go. Keiko ultimately died there, of pneumonia. He was 25 years old, an age not unusual for male orcas, whose average longevity is thought to be around 30 years. Had Keiko lived longer, he may have had opportunities to interact with other orcas again, though they would probably not have been from a familiar community.
My belief is that Keiko would have needed direct contact with members of his immediate family and community in order to fully integrate back into a life in the wild. That did not happen in Iceland, and it is very unlikely that it would have happened in Norway. However, this does not mean that it could not happen, given the appropriate circumstances. The story of Springer, an orphan baby orca who wandered far from her community’s range, and was eventually reunited with her family, demonstrates what is possible. Had more been known about Keiko’s social background, it would have been far easier to put him in contact with members of his family. I do not believe he met his mother, or any siblings or close cousins while he was swimming freely in Icelandic waters. He did meet and interact with other orcas, but they were not his kin, so he did not join them permanently. That said, Keiko did get to experience the feel and sounds of the ocean once again, after being surrounded by barren concrete walls for most of his life, and that, I believe, must have come as a profound relief to him.
For me, the simple fact that Keiko died as a free whale spells success for the grand project that brought him home. Deniers will deny, spinners will spin, but they cannot erase or alter this truth. My congratulations and heartfelt thanks go out to all those who were involved in bringing Keiko from the cramped and overheated confines of his tank in Mexico City, to the wide open ocean he was born into.
by Paul Spong,
2150 Allston Way, Suite 460, Berkeley, CA 94704 USA· (510) 859-9146