Authors: Mark A. Simmons
The True Story of
Return to the Wild
Mark A. Simmons
With Foreword by
© 2014 Mark A. Simmons
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording
or otherwise, without written permission from the author.
Trade paperback ISBN: 978-0-9960770-1-9
Case-bound ISBN: 978-0-9960770-0-2
E-book ISBN: 978-0-9960770-2-6
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014906071
Photos by Mark A. Simmons, unless otherwise noted.
Cover paintings and chapter art by Wyland
Cover photo of author, by Gary Firstenberg, is used by permission.
Trademarks used herein are for identification only and are used without intent to
infringe on the owner’s trademarks or other proprietary rights.
This book is dedicated to the millions of adults who, as children, broke their piggy
banks to free a whale.
Many years ago I received a script to review for a new Hollywood movie titled
, a film about the relationship between a boy and a captive orca.
, I thought. The filmmaking team at Warner Brothers, including Lauren Shuler Donner,
the producer and wife of the famed director Richard Donner, asked me to consider painting
the cover art for the film. Apparently, there was a lot riding on this movie. But
I had to wonder, “Who was this killer whale?”
As fate would have it, I had a chance to meet Keiko long after the fame of movie stardom
had passed. What I discovered was a long way from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
Here was this famous whale confined to a small shallow pool at the Reino Aventura
Amusement Park in Mexico City. You couldn’t imagine a worse place for an apex predator
like a killer whale to live. At this time the young male orca was sixteen years old
and quite large. His massive dorsal fin was bent like many other orcas in captivity
and he was grossly underweight. Worst of all he was suffering from a terrible outbreak
of papilloma virus on his face, dorsal fin and other parts of his skin. Keiko also
had three unique beauty marks on his lower chin, making him distinctive to all other
orcas. But with all that, there was still an impressive spirit about Keiko. He seemed
like everyone and was curious about those who he encountered. That, I was to discover,
would later be part of his downfall.
The fact is this young orca was literally kidnapped from his family in the cool waters
off Iceland. He was abducted to be sold to an amusement park for profit. Killer whales
are big business, generating tens of millions of dollars as entertainment attractions.
They are often put in artificial holding tanks and small pools to perform for the
millions of people paying premium dollars. This is all great for the park’s bottom
line, but not so great for the whales. While some parks might have been better than
others, the industry of catching and exploiting killer whales has taken a heavy toll
on these animals. In the ‘70s, many died in failed attempts to remove them from their
tight-knit family pods that often contain grandparents, parents, and young and baby
orcas. The truth is that today even with all our science, we still know little about
killer whales and the impacts—on the animals and the ocean itself—when they are removed
from their families.
The first time I met Keiko at Reino Aventura he swam over to me and looked deep into
my eyes. I looked back into his black eyes and felt a connection. It was like looking
into the face of highly intelligent animal who although young possessed the wisdom
of his ancestors. Now, here he was alone, thousands of miles away from his home and
family, at the mercy of his captors, fighting for his very survival. It reminded me
of people who are dependent on the kidnappers for food and water and develop Stockholm
syndrome. I couldn’t help thinking,
How the hell can I help get this amazing creature out of that cesspool?
The fact is, they were killing Keiko.
The hot scalding sun and pollution in Mexico City, along with numerous other factors,
including malnutrition, were breaking down his immune system. The toxic environment
had contributed to the massive papilloma disease affecting a large portion of his
After the movie, it seemed that everyone wanted to help this poor young killer whale.
Millions of dollars poured in from people
around the United States and the world. And, like the movie, everyone wanted to free
“Willy.” The problem was this was no movie. This whale was slowly dying in one of
the most polluted cities on the planet. I was invited to meet with Oscar, the owner
of Reino Aventura, and Alejandro, who was in charge of the park. It was 1994, and
I was planning a West Coast tour to paint a series of ocean murals from Anchorage,
Alaska, to Mexico City. In fact, I was invited to paint a mural in Mexico City alongside
the great Mexican muralist masters David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and Jose Orozco
at the university science museum and college. This was considered a great honor because
to my knowledge no other foreigner had received such an invitation. The Reino Aventura
staff asked if I would paint a mural featuring their star—now controversial—whale
At that time no one could figure out how to get the park to release Keiko. I offered
to paint a giant public mural featuring Keiko swimming free with his Icelandic pod
on the entry of the park. I would paint the mural in exchange for Keiko’s release
in one year. Oscar and Alejandro agreed. I also had planned one of the murals in Newport,
Oregon, at the new aquarium there. A woman named Phyllis Bell from the Newport Oregon
aquarium asked me to paint a tiny parking lot wall as part of my mural tour. Maybe,
I thought, the climate around Newport could make the aquarium a good potential future
home for Keiko. Any place was better than Mexico City.
I told Phyllis Bell that unfortunately the wall at the Newport Aquarium was too small
for my life-size murals. But Keiko was still on my mind, so I told her about my idea
of trying to find a good place to rehab this amazing animal. She appeared interested
but seemed to be holding back. I thought she might have been mad about me not accepting
the small parking lot mural for my West Coast tour of murals. The wall at the aquarium
just didn’t work for the mural project. Instead, I opted for a wall in the town of
Newport. Dr. Bruce Mate, a well-known marine biologist spearheaded the project, and
even joined me on the scaffolding painting a local whale named Scarback, a gray whale
that had a huge scar on his back due
to a boat collision. Scarback was the perfect choice to tell the story of the gray
whales that migrated along the Oregon coast, and the wall for the image was the perfect
size. In the end, the mural was enthusiastically received by the town. At the official
dedication ceremony, I somehow ended up standing next to Phyllis Bell and once again
told her that my goal was to help free Keiko from the small park in Mexico City. I
even stated directly that it would be great to bring Keiko to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
The West Coast mural painting tour finally made its way down south of the border to
Mexico City. Again, I had a chance to visit Keiko and actually got to swim with him
for three days. I try not to personify intelligent animals like orcas, but I have
to tell you this whale was special. With all that had happened to Keiko, he continued
to have a beautiful spirit. He was playful and gentle with everyone. I spent a great
deal of time with him, hoping he would one day be united with his family off the coast
of Iceland. The first step was to get Reino Aventura to release him. I continued to
push for the release by painting one of my murals at the entry to the park featuring
a life-size Keiko swimming free. The owners were thrilled and agreed to release Keiko
within six months of the completion of the mural. Alejandro even invited me to be
with Keiko when he left Mexico City on the UPS plane.
What a great honor
, I thought.
They would inform me when he was ready to go.
Keiko was to leave Mexico City and rehabilitate at the Newport Coast Aquarium in the
, I thought. Everything was happening the way I prayed. When it was time for Keiko
to leave, I contacted Reino Aventura about next steps and they told me I had to talk
to Phyllis Bell at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. I called her but she would not give
me any information. She told me I would have to talk to David Phillips from the Earth
Island Institute, whom I called the next day. I was told that unless I donated one
hundred thousand dollars to the Earth Island Institute, I would never get close to
Keiko. David asked me what I contributed to Keiko that would require any further involvement
with me. I explained, quite matter-of-factly, that I painted a
million dollar mural to negotiate Keiko’s release. Finally, David tipped his hand.
He said if I flew with Keiko from Mexico City to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, then Keiko
and I would receive all the media. He told me point-blank that he wanted the media
for Earth Island Institute. I told him that it sounded a lot like extortion. Finally,
I said, “No thanks,” and hung up.
The next time I saw Keiko was many years later when I was visiting my older brother
Steve in Portland. I decided to go incognito to the aquarium to see my old friend.
As I approached, Keiko saw me and swam straight at me, pressing his eye against the
glass wall of his tank. He seemed to remember me from years ago. He followed me up
and down the glass, making sounds. After two hours, I decided to leave him, content
in knowing that he seemed to be recovering nicely.
I followed the Keiko story, like many, wondering what would ever become of this amazing
animal that had touched so many. Tens of millions of dollars poured in to help Keiko
over the years. Kids were giving pennies, nickels, and quarters, anything they had
to help free “Willy.” Early on people like David Phillips seemed to grab whatever
money they could get from Keiko. Others also saw dollar signs and jumped in to get
a piece of Keiko. It seems like all the wrong people were connected to this animal
that had been abused from the moment he was taken. Where did the tens of millions
of dollars go? All that money that poured in appeared to have gone to the wrong people:
the people who couldn’t care less about Keiko’s long-term health and well-being.