International Marine Mammal Project

RIP, Keiko

Earth Island News

International Marine Mammal Project

RIP, Keiko
Keiko, the orca beloved by millions, whose real-life journey to freedom echoed the plot of the movie that brought him fame, died December 12 in Norway’s Taknes fjord in the company of staff members who had been caring for him there.

Keiko’s veterinarian believes that acute pneumonia is the most likely cause of death.

Activists working on Keiko’s reintroduction effort expressed sadness at Keiko’s death but lauded his amazing journey.

“Rescuing Keiko from a cramped pool in Mexico and bringing him back to his home waters is the most spectacular effort ever launched for an animal,” said David Phillips, president and founder of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, “Keiko was a champion; the most incredible whale.”

The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, founded in 1995 by Phillips and Mark Berman, originated as the Free Keiko subproject of IMMP.

Paul Irwin, president of the Humane Society of the United States, added: “Our intention from the very beginning, over a decade ago, was to provide Keiko with the chance for freedom, and that is exactly what he got. He came a long, long way and showed that returning captive whales to the wild is not simply a dream.”

Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko’s lead veterinarian and an expert on orca care, stated: “The most likely cause of death is from acute pneumonia, though it must be noted that at age 27, Keiko was one of only two male orca whales ever to have survived past 25 years in captivity. We had monitored Keiko’s health very closely, and until only a day [before his death] his appetite, activity, and blood tests were all excellent.”

The day before he died, Keiko exhibited signs of lethargy and lack of appetite. Consultation was continuous between his caretakers and Dr. Cornell. His behavior was still abnormal the next morning and his respiratory rate was irregular; as is often the case with whales and dolphins in human care, these were signs of an advanced condition. With little warning, Keiko beached himself and died in the early evening.

In 1993, Keiko starred in the film Free Willy, prompting a worldwide effort to allow him to be the first captive orca ever returned to the wild.

In 1996, Keiko was flown aboard a United Parcel Service plane to a new rehabilitation facility in Newport, Oregon. There he was returned to health and trained in the skills necessary to be a wild whale. In late 1998, Keiko was flown in a US Air Force jet to a sea-pen in Iceland. In the summer of 2002, Keiko joined the company of wild whales and swam nearly 1,000 miles to the Norwegian coast. Since then, Keiko had been cared for in a fjord where he was free to come and go as he pleased.

Keiko inspired millions of children to follow his amazing odyssey and help other whales. Keiko’s journey also inspired a massive educational effort around the world and formed the basis for several scientific studies. Thousands of people traveled to Norway in the past year to see Keiko, the most famous whale in the world.

“Keiko was a trailblazer, the first orca ever rescued from captivity,” says Phillips. “There’s still a lot of work to be done to see that captive whales are given a chance to be free. Keiko showed what is possible if these animals are just given the chance.”

Irwin agrees. “We intend to continue the fight to keep whales free.”

Congress guts marine mammal law
In a devastating attack on key national wildlife laws, Congress has approved legislation to gut the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on behalf of the Pentagon. These amendments can be used to eliminate restrictions on uses of intense sonars and other military activities that harm whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals.

Congress used an unrelated bill, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2004, to tack on anti-environmental amendments sought by the Bush administration and military appointees. The Republican majority adopted the amendments to the MMPA and ESA behind closed doors, not even sharing the decision with Democrats until the day before the vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. Many members of Congress protested that they opposed the gutting of the MMPA and ESA, but that they had to vote for the bill because it provides salaries for soldiers in Iraq and increased funds for veterans.

Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated, “The clarifications of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act will provide greater flexibility to train our fighting forces in a realistic manner and allow us to carefully test and deploy critical technologies.”

But IMMP Director David Phillips counters, “This is the most egregious assault on wildlife laws in this country. These amendments will roll back 30 years of progress in federal protection of whales, seals, dolphins, and endangered species.”

Congress passed the MMPA in 1972; the current ESA followed in 1973. In all the years since, the military has never invoked existing legislation that would allow waiver of any of these laws in the name of national security. Yet the Bush administration insisted, and Congressional conservatives now leading the House and Senate adopted a flawed and dangerous set of amendments that in essence permanently exempt the Navy from the provisions of the MMPA.

The amendments to the ESA will prohibit establishment of any new “critical habitat” designations on any US military lands in the future. Critical habitat gives federal protection to the habitats of endangered species by restricting development that would lead to the further deterioration of the species as their habitat is disrupted. Many species of wildlife, such as the desert pronghorn antelope and desert tortoise, survive today on sprawling Western military bases that provide haven from development and grazing pressures.

The MMPA amendments are even more sweeping. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, at his own personal whim, will be able to waive protection for any whales, dolphins, or other marine mammals for any military activities. There is no appeal.

The definition of “harassment” of marine mammals was also weakened, allowing both the military and federally funded researchers to harass marine mammals without concern for the consequences.

Amendments also removed geographical restrictions and numbers restrictions for the issuance of MMPA “small take permits” to the military, so one permit can now cover the entire ocean for naval activities that harass an unlimited number of marine mammals—out of sight and out of mind.

Many of these MMPA amendments were directed specifically at recent court challenges brought by environmentalists against Navy testing and training with intense underwater sonar systems, such as Low Frequency Active (LFA) Sonar. A recent case filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) resulted in a court order prohibiting the use of LFA Sonar near the West Coast and Hawai’i. It is unclear what the new legislation will do to that and many other lawsuits, both existing and pending. (NRDC’s lawsuit was also based on provisions of the ESA and National Environmental Policy Act, which were not altered.)

Clearly, the military was successful in claiming that wildlife laws impede its ability to train and to test weapons of mass destruction in our oceans. The Republican leaders in Congress swallowed this argument from the Bush administration.

Furthermore, the military is seeking additional amendments, not granted by this round of legislation, to exempt itself from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws. We will likely see these new amendments in next year’s Congress.

“Mr. President, when an endangered species becomes extinct, it is lost forever,” announced Senator James Jeffords (I-VT) on the Senate floor, in voting against the bill. “That is a very serious and eternal consequence of poor, shortsighted environmental policy. National security is more tightly tied to environmental security than many in the Pentagon would acknowledge. We cannot afford to try out a bad policy when the consequences are irrevocable. I am opposed to changing the present requirement that DOD be concerned with both our national security and our environmental health.”

“Both Congress and the Bush administration should be ashamed of themselves,” Phillips says.

—Mark J. Palmer

Captive Russian orca dies
The first-ever captive Russian orca died less than one month after its capture off the coast of Kamchatka on September 26, 2003. The whale was transported to a Black Sea facility operated by the Utrish Dolphinarium on October 5, and is believed to have died on October 23. The circumstances surrounding the death of the orca, estimated to be six years of age, remain unclear; officials at the Utrish Dolphinarium have not responded to inquiries.

“It is entirely possible that the female orca died of shock or suffered internal injuries during transportation,” said orca expert Dr. Paul Spong of OrcaLab, a Canadian whale research station. “The Russian method for transporting captive whales, as we’ve seen with belugas, appears to consist of dumping them on the floor of a cargo plane and taking off. There might not even be a layer of foam underneath the body. The huge weight of the whale puts immense pressure on internal organs, so it’s not surprising that injuries and deaths occur.”

“This death is a tragic waste,” says Mark Berman, assistant director of IMMP. “This is an outrage. Orcas belong in the ocean with their families, not in captivity. Captivity kills.”

The government of the Russian Federation issued permits allowing the capture of 10 orcas in Russia’s far eastern waters in 2003.

Polly Strand: an activist’s life
Long time EII supporter Polly Strand, who worked tirelessly for animals, the environment, children, and disenfranchised humans, passed away on November 5. Strand, 68, succumbed to breast cancer, a disease that she had for 16 years. Despite her lengthy illness, Strand continued to tackle injustices as she had done for more than 45 years.

A resident of northern California since 1967, Strand had an influence that was felt nationwide. She is survived by her three children, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and her husband.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.