Despite $20 million and the best of intentions, the killer whale who starred in the movie "Free Willy" never lived a free life.

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Despite $20 million and the best of intentions, the killer whale who starred in the movie “Free Willy” never lived a free life.

Keiko wasn’t accepted by orcas in his home waters off Iceland and had to be fed frozen fish throughout most of the seven-year effort to reclaim his wild heritage, says the first scientific review of the project.

The whale was captured young and had been held in captivity too long for him to break his ties with humans, said Malene Simon of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, the study’s lead author.

But Simon doesn’t fault environmentalists, marine-mammal experts and philanthropists for trying.

“One of the goals was to figure out if it’s possible to release a captive killer whale,” she said. “I just don’t think Keiko was a good subject.”

Simon has been analyzing previously unpublished data from the project in her spare time for the past several years. “There’s been a lot of speculation about what actually happened and we thought we needed to write it up from a scientific point of view,” she said.

Activists continue to press for the release of Lolita and Corky, two female killer whales captured more than 35 years ago in the Pacific Northwest. And an increasing number of captive dolphins are being freed around the world. But it’s important to keep in mind lessons from the experience with Keiko, and be willing to care for released animals if they can’t make it on their own, Simon said.

“While we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal, the survival and well-being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so,” the paper says.

Though the hope of those behind the “Free Willy” project was to release Keiko into the wild, it’s not fair to brand the effort a failure, said Naomi Rose, senior scientist at Humane Society International.

“In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful,” Rose said.

After two years of “rehab” at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport to restore his health, Keiko spent four years living in net pens and venturing into the open ocean off the coast of Iceland. He then swam on his own to Norway, where he lived another year, free to come and go.

When he died of an apparent lung infection in December 2003, Keiko was estimated to be 27 years old — a longer life span than any other captive male orca, said Dave Phillips, director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation.

“Keiko was a trailblazer for the reintroduction of marine mammals,” Phillips said.

Captured off Iceland at the age of 2, Keiko was performing tricks in a Mexico City aquarium when he was cast in “Free Willy.” The 1992 movie tells the story of a boy who befriends, then frees, a bedraggled whale.

Keiko fit the bill, with his drooping dorsal fin, persistent skin infection and poor health after a decade in the warm-saltwater pool.

Fueled by petitions from schoolchildren and $20 million from Seattle telecommunications billionaire Craig McCaw, the push to find a better life for Keiko took its first leap in 1996, when the 4-ton whale was flown to the Oregon aquarium. His performing days were over, but visitors thronged to Newport to see him.

“His body condition and his health were so poor … my first thought was he was never going to make it out of Newport,” said wildlife biologist Brad Hanson of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle.

Hanson is a co-author of the new paper, published in the journal Marine Mammal Science. He helped design the custom-fit radio and satellite tags that allowed scientists to track Keiko after the buffed-up whale was moved to Iceland in 1998.

Keiko lived there in a net pen, but was guided to the open ocean for “walks.” He spent time near wild orcas, but didn’t become part of their tight-knit social networks, said Simon, who along with her husband and co-author Fernando Ugarte, was part of a team of observers tracking Keiko’s movements and behavior.

The new paper includes data that show Keiko rarely dove as deeply as the wild orcas, or for such extended periods of time. That means he probably wasn’t a very effective hunter, Simon said. Stomach samples showed he didn’t feed during his forays with the wild orcas. After his brief interactions with other whales, Keiko would rush back to the observers’ boat, like a scared child seeking security.

“That part of it was a little bit sad to watch,” Simon said.

Keiko surprised his caretakers when he took off on his own in the summer of 2002, turning up off the coast of Norway five weeks later.

Whales can go that long without eating, but Keiko didn’t appear to have lost weight. So it’s possible he fed on his own during the trip, Simon said.

But once in Norway, the whale sought out the company of people and boats. He lived out the rest of his days being fed regularly by his keepers.

In contrast, a lost, young female orca called Springer was captured, held briefly in a pen and successfully reunited with her birth pod in Puget Sound in 2002. Luna, another young killer whale separated from his Puget Sound family, was killed by a tugboat in Canada’s Nootka Sound after rescue plans were scrapped in the face of Native American opposition.

Keiko’s chances might have been better if his original family group could have been located, Phillips said. But the large number of whales and rugged conditions off Iceland made that difficult.

Both Lolita’s and Corky’s original pods are well-known, and include some relatives alive at the time of their capture. But both animals are owned by marine parks — Lolita by the Miami Seaquarium and Corky by SeaWorld in San Diego — which are unlikely to ever let them go, said Paul Spong, of OrcaLab on Vancouver Island.

The prospects are somewhat better for captive dolphins, 25 of which have been released to the wild over the past several years. Many have been spotted since, apparently thriving. But others have vanished, pointing up the need for the type of monitoring done with Keiko, Simon said.

“You can’t just let these animals out into the wild,” she said. “You have to take the responsibility, and that might cost a lot of money.”

The fortune spent on Keiko might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat, Simon said. But that’s not as appealing as the adventures of a single whale.

“There’s a huge amount of public interest for the Keiko story,” Simon said. “It really tugs the heart.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or