The famous orca died suddenly late last week from pneumonia.
Keiko's sudden death in a Norwegian fjord brings this story of life imitating art to a shattering close. It began with the ailing, aging movie star of 'Free Willy.'
Supporters secured Keiko's release from the small Mexico City theme park, transferring him to a rehab tank in Newport, Oregon.
Keiko proved he could still catch fish on his own, and so was transferred to his native waters in Iceland.
He learned to swim with wild whales, dive deeply, and hunt for food.
"This is what orca whales were built to do," said Dave Phillips, President of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation. "Keiko showed a lot of the naysayers that he was capable of being out there with the big boys."
But Keiko didn't stay out with the big boys, and eventually swam 1,000 miles to Norway, turning once again to humans for companionship.
"I think personally the saddest thing for me is that we never were able to find Keiko's family," said Phillips.
Killer whales depend on tightly knit families. That's a key difference between Keiko and other captive killer whales, like Lolita.
Researchers know everything about Lolita's pod; killer whales that call Puget Sound home.
"Those who were in the know realized that Lolita was a far better candidate," said Howard Garrett of Orca Network talking about Lolita's chances for returning to the wild. "She just wasn't a movie star."
Lolita has spent the past 33 years in Miami's Seaquarium. She was captured off Whidbey Island at the age of 5 or 6. She was old enough to know how to catch fish, survive on her own, and remember her family.
"Lolita, it would be a piece of cake, a walk in the park," said Garrett.
Lolita supporters don't know if Keiko's death will help or hinder their efforts to free Lolita. But they believe like Keiko, she deserves a chance.
The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation considers the Keiko experiment a success and plans to focus now on returning other captive killer whales to the wild.