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Amusing and Awesome Tales from Keiko the Killer Whale at Oregon Coast Aquarium

Published 10/14/23 at 6:12 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Amusing and Awesome Tales from Keiko the Killer Whale at Oregon Coast Aquarium

(Newport, Oregon) – In the '90s, Keiko the killer whale put Newport, Oregon on the map when Oregon Coast Aquarium brought a famous, movie star whale (from Free Willy) to the facilities at Oregon Coast Aquarium to not only rehabilitate him after decades of varying mistreatment but to ready him for release back into the wild. It was the first large-scale effort of its kind that our kind – mankind – had attempted. Certainly, publicly. (Photo Oregon Coast Aquarium)

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Brought into its tank in '96, he stayed about two years and was yet another media sensation, and possibly the single biggest longterm boost to the local tourism economy. Keiko was flown back to the waters he was stolen from in '98, eventually re-released back into the wild in a story that didn't end well.

About ten years later, as Oregon Coast Beach Connection was still just getting going, we asked some longtimers about amusing anecdotes of Keiko's stay there. And we hit a goldmine.

In the late '00s, Cindy Hanson was their PR official – well known in Oregon as a radio personality on KINK radio and as a reporter for other media. She and some others at the aquarium imparted some gems back in 2009.

Among them was Kandy Smith, eventually an events manager at the aquarium but starting out as a security guard in the Keiko days. The big, beautiful orca had his quirky side the public didn't always get to see.

Some of it is cute as hell.

Photo courtesy Mountain States Construction

“Once the large crowds had left for the day, it didn’t take long to see Keiko got bored without the constant interaction and accolades of his adoring fans, especially small children,” Smith told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “So to this end, some creative person came up with the idea that perhaps a little TV watching might be the answer. After all, millions of children loved it; why not our own special ‘kid?’ “

They found out Keiko was particular about his TV.

“Each evening, one of the security staff would enter into his keeper’s office, roll the large TV set up to the underwater viewing window, turn it on and watch Keiko zip over to see what the night’s entertainment might be. Well it didn’t take a degree in whale psychology to observe just what shows kept our big guy occupied or drove him off in a huff to the other side of the pool. Bottom line: Keiko preferred to spend his evening watching either action-filled sporting events such as wrestling. Or when in a lighter mood, perhaps some old fashioned cartoons might be the ticket.”

Smith said Keiko liked action and movement, but he didn't like slow moving shows like the “Golden Girls” or soaps.

“This whale certainly knew his likes and dislikes,” Smith said.

Hanson was there working as a reporter and news director when Keiko arrived. Working for KSND radio then, Hanson was in the throngs of media, which included Jack McGowan (founder of SOLVE).

This was a time when the phrase “Free Keiko” was common, a riff on the movies he starred in and the purpose of his stay here.

“Keiko's arrival was delayed and the masses of reporters and cameramen began to get restless,” Hanson said. “I remember a reporter yelling, ‘Free the media!!!’ Everyone laughed.”

At that time, Hanson said thought the whole Keiko thing was over-hyped – until she watched the transfer happen. As the behemoth was lowered into the tank, a team of divers swam around him to get him loose from the sling he was in.

It was very clear Keiko knew he was a giant among these little people and was very careful not to hurt them.

“That was the moment I saw what an amazing being he was,” Hanson said.

Keiko sadly died shortly after release in his native waters in Iceland. Scientists believe it was pneumonia.

From Oregon Coast Beach Connection editor Andre' GW Hagestedt

I'm old enough to remember the Keiko craze and I must admit I was bit caught up in it myself, at least after awhile. I went down to the aquarium twice and saw him. Knowing his story full well, that the curled-over tail was because of his having lived in close quarters too long, I must admit the sight made me rather sad. Still, I was impressed to see such a magnificent creature in a tank: a simply gigantic beast swimming past the glass and watching people.

That was kind of the almost-eerie part: and I don't mean that in a creepy way, necessarily. There was an intelligence and presence behind those eyes and the way he moved. It was intense.

Perhaps it was my own imagination getting away with me, but upon my second visit a year or two after the first, it was as if he recognized me. I remember him swimming over to where my cousin and I were, and it felt a bit like he looked right at me, and as if he paused near us.

Probably just coincidence, but I remember joking to my cousin to that effect, but at the same time it felt eerily real. Then again, why would he remember some random human?

By '98 I had started a coastal website, and I was glued to TV coverage of that slow procession of his crate and all the personnel involved in moving him. It was rather magical to watch mankind's first effort to try and bring a killer whale back to his old home waters.

Oregon Coast Aquarium is in Newport's South Beach.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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