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Free Willy Star May Never Be Freed

by Richard Middleton

Reykjavik, Iceland - Keiko, the killer whale that starred in the film Free Willy, is in no hurry to be freed, his caretakers said Sunday.  Even after more than 60 trips out of his pen, Keiko appears reluctant to rejoin wild killer whale pods near his home at the Westman Islands, south Iceland.  He has been in captivity for most of his life and appears addicted to mankind, his caretakers said.  "It is possible that Keiko never will be free," said Jeff Foster, director of operations and field research for Ocean Futures, the California-based organisation caring for Keiko.

Time and money are running out for Keiko.  In August, a salmon farm is to be installed next to his pen in Klettsvik Bay.  Sea lice proliferate on caged salmon and, together with the fish excretion, could affect his health.  And while Keiko has made great strides in integrating with other killer whales since sea trials began last year, he still dives below the monitoring boat as if to protect his "human" pod, said Charles Vinick, executive vice president of Ocean Futures.  Caretakers only have a small window of time to work on integrating him into the pod.  Wild killers will be leaving the area when the weather begins to cool in about three weeks.

Keiko, which means "Lucky One" in Japanese, was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979 when he was about 2 years old.  He was sold to Reino Aventura amusement park in 1985 for $350,000.  In 1992, Keiko starred in Free Willy and in its sequel three years later.  The movies sparked a campaign to free the orca whale.  Finally, in September 1998, Keiko was moved to his pen at the Westman Islands, where the annual cost of his upkeep in Iceland is a reported $3 million.  Ocean Futures has launched a campaign to raise $1 million for his care.

The company planning to put 250 tons of salmon next to Keiko's pen said it could no longer delay the project.  "Many people in the Westman Islands feel that OK, Keiko came, he tried to integrate with his species, but now it is time to move on," said Olafur Wernersson, general manager of Iceland Salmon.

Foster said Keiko would stay in Klettsvik Bay during the winter and would probably be moved to another site in the spring, perhaps elsewhere in Europe.  "Before we came to Iceland, we looked at other sites in Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides and the Orkneys," he said.

Source: NandoTimes  from the Associated Press 29 July 2001

"Free Willy" Sleeps with Fishes

by Joal Ryan

It won't be hard to fill his shoes, as the big fellow didn't have any feet.  But admirers worldwide say the whale of a movie star's heart will be missed. Keiko, the aquatic star of the 1993 movie Free Willy, whose real-life struggles to become a free-wheeling whale made him the world's most famous sea creature weighing at least 5 tons, was found dead Friday.  He was 27, one of only two male orcas to surpass the quarter-century mark (mostly) in captivity.

The former film giant died in "his winter quarters," as the Norway Post (aka "the doorway to Norway") put it, a Norwegian fjord in the town of Halsa that Keiko had frequented for the past year.  Cause of death was thought to be acute pneumonia. Keiko's private physician, also known as a vet, said the famously friendly big mammal was in "excellent" health until Thursday.  Halsa mayor Margrethe Saether said, per the Oslo newspaper, Aftenposten, that the coddled cetacean "initially seemed to have a cold."  Keiko acted lethargic and lost his whale-sized appetite.  By Friday night, he had beached himself at Halsa's local pier. "I think this is downright sad," Saether said.

The Free Willy Keiko Foundation, the nonprofit organisation that led the often-fitful fight to return Keiko to open sea, celebrated, rather than mourned, the onetime Hollywood figure.  "Keiko was a champion; the most incredible whale," David Phillips, president and founder of the group said in a statement.

Born in the mid-1970s, the future movie-star mammal began life as a whale of modest means - no vet, no entourage, likely no name.  In 1979, he was captured in waters near Iceland, installed in an aquarium and introduced to humans, two-legged primates who did thoughtful things for Keiko such as feed him lots and lots of fish.  The big break came in 1982, when he moved, or rather was taken, to Canada's Marineland in Ontario, and delighted audiences for the first time with a winsome whale act.  In 1985, Keiko was sold to a Mexican amusement park.  Then, in 1993, the biggest break: A title role in a major motion picture.  Free Willy was the tale of Willy, a lowly amusement-park whale, who is befriended by a troubled young boy and encouraged to seek his fame and fortune on the high sea.  Critic Roger Ebert called the scenes with the whale "very convincing," although Keiko shared the praise with the animatronic devices who eventually took over all acting chores in the franchise's two sequels.

Following the release of the first movie, activists argued that Willy's fin-and-blood portrayer deserved freedom, too.  To that end, a United Parcel Service plane airlifted the hefty performer to an Oregon aquarium in 1996 in order to prepare Keiko for life on his own.  After nearly two years, Keiko continued to struggle with the concept of fishing, preferring to be hand fed by his helpful human friends.  Undeterred, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation transported its charge to Iceland in 1998, this time, courtesy the US Air Force.  Finally, in 2002, Keiko was deemed sufficiently self-sufficient and kicked out of the nest.  He swam 870 miles on his lonesome before heading for a Norwegian inlet where local humans were more than happy to pet him and, of course, feed him.  At least one Norwegian whale expert suggested offing Keiko, but cooler heads prevailed in chilly Halsa, and the co-dependent creature became a beloved fixture.

The Humane Society of the United States called Keiko's misadventures a success story.  "He came a long, long way and showed that returning captive whales to the wild is not simply a dream," Paul Irwin, the organisation's president, said in a statement.  Burial plans were unclear.  According to Aftenposten, Keiko, per custom, would either be hauled up to land, or "towed out to the open sea and slaughtered."  Happily, local officials told Reuters they would respect the wishes of Keiko's camp.  Said a Norwegian fishing official to the wire service: "We understand that Keiko is special."

Source: www.eonline.com  13 December 2003

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