Ocean Futures left the Keiko project in late 2001. The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and the The Humane Society of the United States re-established management of the project at that time until Keiko’s death in 2003. Keiko was finally released in the open in July 2002. However, about six weeks later he showed up in a Norwegian fjord, apparently seeking contact with human beings and allowing children to ride on his back. He continued to follow a boat responsible for his care and failed to reintegrate into the wild
Keiko died in Taknes Bay, Norway while under the care of personnel from The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation on December 12, 2003, at about 27 years of age. Pneumonia was later determined as his probable cause of death. Following requests from fans of the orca and Free Willy, the Oregon Coast Aquarium held a memorial service for him on February 20, 2004. 700 people attended the service, during which Thomas Chatterton, a veterinary chaplain said, “Keiko was not one of our kind but nonetheless, was still one of us.
There is a memorial site for Keiko set up by the locals in Halsa, Norway. Norwegian school children built a wooden cairn to mark the spot where he is buried. Tourists continue to travel to Norway every year to see Keiko’s final resting place, honoring his legacy as the most famous whale in the world and an ambassador of captive whales worldwide.