OSLO — Keiko, who gained fame starring in the "Free Willy" movies, has died in a Norwegian bay that he had made his home after a 10-year campaign failed to coax him back to the open seas.
The whale, who was about 26 years old, died Friday after suddenly contracting pneumonia in the Taknes fjord in Norway. Caretaker Dane Richards said the illness struck the 25-foot mammal fairly quickly.
In the wild, orcas, or killer whales, can live an average of 35 years. Keiko was believed born in 1977 or 1978 off Iceland.
The drive to free Keiko, who was captured near Iceland in 1979 and sold to the marine park industry, began in 1993 after he was found ailing in a Mexico City aquarium. He was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, then airlifted to Iceland in 1998.
His handlers prepared him for the wild, teaching him to catch live fish in an operation that cost about $500,000 a month, according to the Free Willy Foundation in San Francisco. After a year of care in Norway, Keiko, which means "Lucky One" in Japanese, was released from Iceland in July 2002 with hopes that he would return to the wild. But he swam straight back to Norway in an 870-mile trek.