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The Truth Behind Hollywood’s Famous Marine Mammals

Often, the story behind feel-good films featuring marine mammals is completely different than the one we see onscreen.

My obsession with the underwater world began when I was around three years old with the release of the classic 1993 movie Free Willy. I fell in love with Willy and the rest of his orca family, and followed his story avidly as the sequels continued throughout the 90s. My parents indulged my obsession by buying me a harmonica and even “adopting” me my very own killer whale, a wild orca named Holly who lived in Vancouver and whose photo sat beside my bed. It was only when I got older that I realized releasing an orca from captivity isn’t as simple as giving it access to the ocean, and that the orca who played Willy did not get to return to the wild and to his family like the character he played. Often, the story behind feel-good films featuring marine mammals is completely different than the one we see onscreen. Here we’ll look at three real-life stars from some of Hollywood’s highest-grossing animal movies and examine what went on behind the scenes.


Perhaps the most famous marine mammal movie of all time, the first Flipper feature film was released in 1963 and would later inspire a television series and several more films. It told the story of Flipper, a bottlenose dolphin that befriends a young boy, helping him to find fish for his fisherman father and protecting him from sharks. Flipper’s playful and intelligent nature captured the hearts of millions of viewers, and the dolphinarium trade grew exponentially to meet the public’s newfound interest in these seemingly carefree cetaceans. However, the truth behind the Flipper franchise reveals the dark side of the story. Five bottlenose dolphins were used to play the part of Flipper in the film and the later TV series, with the main role falling to a female dolphin named Kathy. Like many others at the time, the dolphins’ trainer, Ric O’Barry, saw nothing wrong with keeping the animals in small pens and training them for human entertainment. But this all changed when Kathy died in O’Barry’s arms after filming ended. O’Barry was deeply affected by the dolphin’s death, believing that she had intentionally stopped surfacing to breathe, effectively committing suicide. He believed that her unnatural living conditions had caused her unhappiness, and has been at the forefront of campaigns to end cetacean captivity ever since. It is now known that while a bottlenose dolphin in the wild has a life expectancy of over 40 years, that number falls to as low as 5 years in captivity.

Free Willy

The sentiment that cetaceans belong in the wild was championed in this 1993 film, which tells the story of an orphaned boy who bonds with a captive orca at his local theme park, and later helps the whale escape to the ocean. Willy’s character had a lot in common with Keiko, the real-life whale that played him, in that they were both captured from the wild and separated from their families at a young age. Taken from the fjords of Iceland in 1979, Keiko spent 14 years in captivity in Canada and Mexico before landing the role of Willy. After the movie’s release, the public campaigned to rehabilitate Keiko and release him back into the wild. The campaign gained momentum until, funded in part by the Warner Brothers Studio, Keiko was transported to a sea pen in Iceland in 1998 to begin his rehabilitation process. Four years later, Keiko was successfully released back into the wild; however, he survived for only 18 months before dying of pneumonia in December 2003. Although Keiko seemed to be able to feed himself during his time in the wild, he never fully reintegrated with wild whales, instead moving from pod to pod and always maintaining his distance from the group. In the end, the damage done when he was torn from his family in 1979 could not be repaired, for by the time he was returned to Iceland, his family had moved on. Tragically, Keiko’s story is the most positive of all captive orca tales — he is, thus far, the only whale that has been even semi-successfully returned to the wild.


Based on a true story, this film may not have enjoyed the same level of success as Flipper and Free Willy at the box office, but it still touched the lives of millions of viewers, all of whom fell in love with the rescued sea lion who kept returning to his human family even after they returned him to the wild. The real Andre was not a sea lion at all, but a harbor seal that was taken in by the Goodridge family of Rockport, Maine as a pup, but film producers chose to cast a sea lion named Tory in the role of Andre, because sea lions are easier to train than harbor seals. Although the real Andre chose to return home to Rockport year after year despite being given the freedom to go wherever he chose, the scenes of Andre in the wild were filmed in captivity for fear that Tory might try to escape if given the opportunity. When Tory was chosen to play the role of Andre, she was flown from her warm Los Angeles home to the frigid climes of Vancouver; after filming was through, she was flown to Hawaii to attend publicity events. Until her death in 2008, Tory was moved from pen to pen; first to Mississippi, until her oceanarium home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and then on to the Bahamas. By the time she died, Tory was blind and had been rendered infertile by endometriosis, and yet she continued to perform for the public until a few days before her death. The toll that such disruption would take on an animal that would naturally remain in a single environment for the duration of her lifetime is undeniable.

It could be argued that films like Flipper, Free Willy and Andre can act as powerful tools for good, in that they raise awareness of the issues facing marine mammals kept in captivity. After all, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Free Willy as a child, I might not have grown up to care so much about the freedom of animals like Willy as an adult. But upon closer inspection, it’s obvious that the pro-freedom message delivered by films like these is a hypocritical way to generate that feel-good feeling amongst viewers, which in turn generates ticket sales and healthy profits. That there is a latent hypocrisy beneath the message of each of these films is evident in the fact that they used captive animals like Kathy, Keiko and Tory to deliver messages of freedom. It’s important to look beyond the surface of films like these — featuring any captive animals, not just marine mammals — by doing so, you will realize that for animals in captivity, there is very rarely a happy ending.