Freeing Keiko

How activists worked to liberate the world’s most famous orca


Keiko, the orca, leaping under a snow-and-forested mountain and a rainbowMark BermanKeiko, Halsa, Norway 10-24-02

In captivity Keiko shut down his sonar. The clicks of killer-whale echolocation, bouncing around the immediate walls of his Mexican cell, returned no new information. The echoes told him nothing he hadn’t learned in his first minute incarcerated here. The empty reverberation must have seemed to mock him. The babble of re-echoing clicks would have been like dwelling in a hall of mirrors, or like seeing through the compound eyes of an insect.

Or something like that. Human beings hear so primitively that it is hard for us to imagine the acoustic vision of killer whales; we can only guess what it is like to possess this kind of clairvoyance and what it is like to lose it.

Humans hear passively. Orcinus orca and the other toothed whales hear aggressively. Echolocating, they send bursts of clicks outward; lower frequencies to rough objects out, higher frequencies to fill in the details. They produce their sounds in a manner imperfectly known, but it involves the “melon,” the oil-filled chamber that gives the dolphin’s forehead its bulge. Dolphin sound production is powerful. Toothed whales are capable of generating bangs so intense that they can stun or kill prey at a distance. Dolphins are decibellicose, to invent a term. They employ a kind of banshee shriek of loud click-trains as a threat. The bone of the skull directly behind the melon is thickened soundproofing to protect the thought processes from fragmentation by the noise.

In echolocation a dolphin can reel off 300 clicks per second. Some click sequences are spaced so that the outgoing clicks will not interfere with incoming echoes. Other sequences are spaced so that the echoes will interfere, allowing the dolphin to refine details by interpreting interference patterns.

The reflected photons that give us sight rebound only from the surface of things. What they reveal is superficial. The click-trains of toothed whales are more perspicacious, for they can penetrate matter. Whales have the power to hear into things. We know from experiments with captive dolphins that they can distinguish objects of identical shape but different density; that they can discern spaces and structures inside objects. Certain details figure to be easy for them: the hard beaks within squid’s soft bodies, for example, or the airiness of lungs inside a human. The first diagnostic use of ultrasound was an invention of the whales many millions of years before we hominids came down from the trees.

Killer whales and other dolphins receive echoes not with their external ears, but with their jawbones and their melons – odd organs of hearing, it might seem, but efficient just the same, capable of detecting higher frequencies than the auditory gear of any animal except the bat.

Humans can echolocate in a rudimentary way. In darkness, the echo of our footfalls tells us whether we are confined in a small, overstuffed apartment or lost in some vast marble hall. We experience near objects as a kind of looming. We whistle in the dark. Echolocation guides us past furniture, halting us if we are lucky just before we hit the sofa or the wall. Frequently, of course, we are unlucky. As often as not, our echolocation fails us. Our shins are particularly vulnerable to low coffee tables. Children’s discarded shoes, sleeping dogs, and soccer balls all lie below our sonar. Our noses are often casualties of open doors, which, approached edge-on, offer a slim sonic profile and produces no blip on our screens. We slide our feet through the acoustic world cautiously, forever anticipating a bump. Killer whales fly through their night seas gleefully at thirty knots.

And yet, possessing the rudiments of the faculty, we can begin to guess at how its refinement feels to a killer whale. If the whale’s perception is anything like our own, then objects are experienced as pressures. The sensation is tactile yet remote. For Orcinus orca, the pressures are exquisitely modeled, and here – just as we have begun trying to “picture” it – is where our intuition breaks down. We have to imagine perceiving, with vibrant jawbones, a topography of differential pressures equivalent to our world of reflected light. We have to imagine a dilute, musical Creation in which foreign objects are few and far between, yet translucent to our curiosity, each one singing a different song to us depending on its speed and direction of flight. We have to conceive an orchestral universe in which everything – even the newest and strangest thing – manifests itself in shadings of pitch and percussion in the echoes of our own familiar voice.

Before his capture, Keiko had moved comfortably through this world shaped of sound. As a calf in the night seas of Iceland, the young Keiko, voluble still and full of click-trains, had swum close to his mother. She was a familiar slipstream in the darkness and a running commentary of grunts and whistles. She was a bright, loud, instantaneous wall of reflected clicks when Keiko was echolocating, and a dark silhouette against the white noise of the sea when he was not. When he left off experimenting with his click-trains, his mother, the great bulk of her, blacked out a quadrant of the ocean’s background chatter – the snapping of shrimp, the songs of blue whales, the screws of distant freighters – just as the dark curve of a mountain eclipses the stars. Emitting a new burst of clicks, Keiko lit her up again.

Killer whales and other dolphins propagate their click-trains in a conical beam that widens outward from the tip of the beak. As Keiko’s pod coursed through the blackness of the North Atlantic, he swung his beak slightly this way and that, filling in the view ahead. His mother blurred and faded on his sonar as he focused on the whales in the lead. Then his beak swung back her way again, renewing her image even as the other whales blurred and faded.

In Iceland, the principal prey of killer whales is herring. In winter, schools of those fish must have materialized nightly on Keiko’s sonar. Each herring school was nebulous at first, its echoes soft and diffuse – a sort of Greater Magellanic Cloud of sound, as an astronomer might observe that misty galaxy. The cloud would have come accompanied by a flurry of approximations of itself – dimmer, fuzzier images composed of rebounding click-trains from the other whales. Keiko could tune these out, just as humans tune out the babble of conversation in a crowded restaurant. The herring cloud resolved itself into individual fish as the pod drew closer, and as Keiko raised his pitch to examine the school at higher resolution.

The killer whales commenced the teamwork of herding, racing around the perimeter of the school, sculpting the herring into a tight ball. Each fish in the ball had its Doppler signature, the fish’s frequency rising as it darted toward Keiko, then dropping as the frantic vortex of the fish ball carried it away to the other side of the gyre. (By daylight a whale – or, for that matter, a human diver through his facemask – sees something similar as all the fish in the school simultaneously flash silver, then darken again as they change direction.)

Nature devised schooling as a way to confuse predators. Schooling fish are all of the same age-class, size, and speed. They share a mesmerizing rapidfire identicality. The school offers the predator too many iterations of the same thing, too many choices. But schooling is not a strategy that works well against killer whales. Orcinus orca is a wonderfully decisive hunter. Once Keiko’s pod had shaped the herring ball just the way they liked it, an adult orca broke off the circle, slashed in, and tail-slapped through the ball. The scythe of the tailfin, either by direct impact on the herring or by causing concussive cavitations in the water, stunned dozens of fish, which fell out of formation. As the herring swirled, disoriented, the killer whales picked them off one at a time. Keiko locked onto a herring. In the last instant of the life of that fish, the calf made a kind of flash snapshot in clicks, a three-dimensional auditory x-ray hologram in which he may even have glimpsed the skeleton within.

In Icelandic saga, the gift of second sight was rare. It lay in a hero’s ability to perceive what Icelanders called a flybben, “a spiritual double.” The hero saw specters of his enemies gathering, sometimes in the form of animals, where everyone else saw only Icelandic tundra and dwarf birches. For killer whales and other dolphins, the gift of second sight is not rare, but universal. In the night sea off Iceland, where you and I would have seen only blackness, Keiko fixed on the acoustic flybben of his herring. The Doppler signal of the herring was crucial now. As any spear-fisherman could tell you, as any gannet or pelican or osprey knows, the hunter must aim for where the fish is going, not at where it is. The staccato Doppler doppelganger of the herring amplified as Keiko’s hearing jaw opened for it, then abruptly ceased as his jaws clamped shut.

two men outdoors talking Mark BermanIMMP’s Dave Phillips (right) chats with US Ambassador to Iceland Day Mount, as
Keiko is unloaded from his airplane and waits to be put into his sea pen in Iceland’s
Arctic waters

In his concrete tank in Mexico, Keiko renounced his gift of second sight. He let his sonar screen go dark. He continued to “vocalize,” making the whistles and wheezes of killer-whale communication, just talking to himself, but he did so less and less, and in the end it became a kind of babytalk. His companions in the tank were bottlenose dolphins, and Keiko began to speak like one of those. He did a fine imitation of an ambulance siren as well, and a passable impression of a rooster.

Male killer whales reach sexual maturity at fifteen, physical maturity at twenty-one. The males have a mean life expectancy of 29.2 years, according to the estimates of the International Whaling Commission. The “maximum estimated age trajectory” of the males is between 50 and 60. In captivity, sadly, no whale has even approached that maximum. Their trajectories nose-dive less than halfway home, with most males dying before physical maturity. Only two captive males had survived past 20: Orky, who died at about 29, and Hyak, who died at about 26. Keiko would have passed whatever time he had left on earth – two years, maybe, five at best – in his tepid tank under the Mexican sun, had it not been for a tuna sandwich.

Enter Earth Island

In a brief domestic lull in the gunfire and explosions of the Warner Brothers movie Lethal Weapon 2, the actor Danny Glover, playing a police lieutenant named Murtaugh, prepares to eat a sandwich.

“Tuna!” his family cries in unison.

Detective Murtaugh, startled, arrests his eating in mid-bite.

“We’re boycotting tuna, Honey,” explains his wife. “Because they kill the dolphins that get caught in the net.”

Murtaugh’s teenage daughter, to clue him in, points emphatically to her Earth Island Institute “Save the Dolphins” T-shirt and the dolphin gamboling across her chest. The detective unhappily withdraws the sandwich from his mouth.

The sandwich was loaded into Lethal Weapon 2 at the suggestion of Ann Moss, a dolphin-activist, former model, and the wife of Jerry Moss, founder of A&M Records. Ann Moss, “Ani,” was a friend of Richard Donner, producer of Lethal Weapon 2. Donner, who had dolphinist tendencies himself, liked how Ani’s little plug for dolphins played in Lethal Weapon 2. He wanted to do more for whales. He worked up a screenplay on a killer whale, the biggest dolphin species of all. The story amounted to an update of the Androcles fable, with a runaway boy in the role of the Roman slave, and a killer whale, Willy, in the role of lion.

In the original screenplay, by a writer named Keith Walker, the Androcles figure is a mute orphan raised by nuns. The orphan is silent until the climax, when, in releasing his whale to the wild, he suddenly finds his voice and cries “Free Willy!” This arc seemed too Dickensian, too saccharine, to Lauren Shuler Donner, Richard Donner’s co-producer and wife. Dialogue presented a problem, too – there is not much opportunity for repartee in a story where one protagonist is a mute human and the other a killer whale who speaks only in whistles and clicks. Lauren Shuler Donner modernized the tale, eliminating the nuns, converting the orphan to a surly juvenile delinquent, and endowing the boy, wisely, with the power of speech from the opening scenes. The Donners hoped to film at Sea World or another US marine park, where they would draft one of the resident killer whales to play the title role. The marine parks were amenable until they learned the plot, which featured greedy oceanarium owners for villains and ended with the whale’s release to the wild. Sea World suggested an alternate ending. Instead of freedom in the ocean, maybe the whale could just find his way to a nicer oceanarium? Richard Donner was unwilling to make this change. Without a script revision, no marine park in the United States would cooperate. The producer had to go to Mexico to find his whale.

In 1992, Donner made a call to David Phillips of Earth Island Institute. Phillips wears two hats in the organization, serving both as executive director of the mother organization and as founder and director of the International Marine Mammal Project, one of Earth Island’s projects. It was Earth Island that had produced the “Save the Dolphins” sweatshirt worn by Lieutenant Murtaugh’s daughter in the movie. When Richard Donner succeeded in tracking Phillips down by phone, the environmentalist was in the middle of dinner in Glasgow, Scotland, where he was attending the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission. Hollywood operates independent of time zones. Donner explained that he and his wife were making a movie on a killer whale for Warner Brothers. They wanted Phillips’s ideas on how the film might do a little advocacy for whales.

This query was pivotal – it would shape the next decade of Phillips’s life – but the environmentalist had no intimation of this at the time. He was thirty-nine, a bearded man of middle height, with collar-length hair thinning on top.

If the saga of Keiko has a human hero, it is David Phillips. He has a flashpoint something like that of the hero Gunnar in Njorl’s Saga – slow to ignite, then fierce. Otherwise, as an old-style Icelandic hero, he falls short. He lacks the breadth of shoulder and width of forearm you need to cleave the shield of Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, or to amputate, in a single stroke, both legs of Harald Battle-tooth. But we live in a different era. Today the heroes of Icelandic saga would all be in penitentiaries.

Phillips does not shy from combat of the kind that shapes modern public policy. He is pugnacious in a contemporary way. From the time he left Colorado College with a degree in environmental science, he has been off on Viking raids against the extractive industries and their henchmen in the regulatory agencies. In his late twenties, as wildlife-programs coordinator for Friends of the Earth, he led the opposition to the capture of the last twenty wild California condors for a captive-breeding program in zoos. Moving to Earth Island Institute, he attended the births of dozens of scrappy little environmental outfits. At the time Richard Donner’s call reached Phillips in Scotland, he was fresh from legal and public-relations victories in a campaign he had spearheaded against the tuna fishery in the eastern tropical Pacific, where purse-seiners were killing hundreds of thousands of dolphins annually as by-catch.

One old technique of the Icelandic hero was to shame his clansmen, by his brave example, into joining some hopeless fight, which thereby becomes winnable. Here Phillips was a throwback. In his tuna-dolphin campaign, he had shamed Greenpeace and other big environmental outfits into joining a battle for which they had no stomach at the start. His efforts had led to regulation and close monitoring of the tuna fleets and a radical reduction of the dolphin slaughter.

closeup of Keiko's rostrum, or faceMark Berman

In the Glasgow restaurant, his meal interrupted, Phillips considered Richard Donner’s request. He briefly contemplated suggesting that Donner’s scriptwriters insert some variation on the tuna-sandwich motif in the new killer-whale movie. He quickly dismissed the idea. It might be cute – good for one laugh – but it would have no lasting effect. Better, thought Phillips, would be something that provided filmgoers with an avenue for continuing involvement with whales. To Donner he proposed displaying an 800 number at the end of the film. Anyone moved to action by the Willy story could call Earth Island Institute, toll-free, for information on how to help the world’s whales.

Donner liked the idea. Warner Brothers proved hesitant about running this sort of advertisement, but Phillips and Donner lobbied the studio, and eventually the moguls gave in. Setting up the toll-free number, Phillips hired an in-bound telemarketing company to handle the calls. Donner persuaded a foundation to underwrite the telephone, printing, and postage expenses for responses to as many as 25,000 calls.

“We thought, All right!” Phillips recalls of this arrangement. “We’re really covered now!” Shaking his head, he laughs at the size of his miscalculation.
Excerpted from Freeing Keiko by Kenneth Brower. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright ©2005 by Kenneth Brower.

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