We all saw “Free Willy,” we all loved “Free Willy.” But what happened to the real Willy? In a tragic, confounding dose of irony, Keiko, the whale-actor who played Willy, was languising in a marine park in Mexico after filming. He was underweight, covered in skin lesions, suffering a drooping dorsal fin and predicted to die within months from poor health.
“Freeing Willy,” a new 12-minute mini-documentary from Retro Report and The New York Times, recounts the global campaign to “Free Keiko.” Thanks mostly to a huge donation from billionaire Craig McCaw, a $7.3 million rehabilitation tank was built for Keiko in Oregon, intended as a center where the orca whale could learn how to survive in the wild, a process Susan Orlean (who wrote about Keiko’s journey in the New Yorker) called “human beings teaching a whale to be a whale.” Born in Icelandic waters but caught captive as a baby, Keiko may have known how to star in a movie, but he didn’t know how to hold his breath for long periods, catch his own food, or swim in harsh waters.
How Keiko came to garner so much support and attention, the process of his rehabilitation and the conclusion of his journey into the wild are all the subjects of “Freeing Willy.” Tragically, Keiko’s story did not end as happily as Willy’s. The dangers are not just to the whales; there have been many attacks on humans and deaths caused by orcas in captivity around the world. Thanks in particular to the recent film “Blackfish,” the treatment of these whales is being put under a microscope. Now, Retro Report’s “Freeing Willy” serves as a well-timed reminder that the only captive orca who enjoyed a fairytale ending was a fictional one.