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Natalie Pawelski: Pod or pen for Keiko?

Keiko the killer whale
Keiko the killer whale  

Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the film "Free Willy," now lives in a bay in Iceland, where scientists with the Ocean Futures Society are trying to encourage his return to the open ocean after 20 years in captivity. CNN's Natalie Pawelski explains some of the problems they face.

Q. Why don't they just take Keiko out in the ocean somewhere and set him free?

A. Most likely, Keiko could survive in the wild only if a wild pod of whales adopted him -- dumping him out in the sea as a sort of ocean-going lone wolf probably wouldn't work. For starters, he probably couldn't feed himself -- Iceland's orcas hunt in packs, relying on each other to bring herring up from deeper water so they can eat them. And killer whales migrate -- they'll be moving away from Iceland in a few weeks -- and who knows if Keiko remembers migratory patterns from back before he was captured.

The great hope of the Ocean Futures Society is that Keiko will bond with a pod -- maybe even his original family, since he was captured in these same waters -- and swim off with them. But so far, that hasn't happened, and researchers are not sure if it ever will.

Q. Did you get a chance to get to interact with Keiko?

A. Unintentionally, yes.

As part of the effort to switch Keiko's focus from the human world to the wild world, his keepers are trying to minimize contact with any new people. So we weren't allowed to get too close.

But we were able to watch an exercise session from the edge of his netted-in pen. After doing a series of tricks that replicate behaviors seen in the wild -- jumps, bows, tail slaps, that kind of thing -- Keiko finished his drill, and promptly swam straight for us in our boat, lurking at the edge of his pen.

Orcas have a keen sense of hearing, and the boat we were on is one they use to take him on ocean 'walks,' so it's likely he recognized the sound of the motor. Or, his keepers say, he may have recognized that there were new people with a camera hanging out, and being a curious animal who's reasonably camera-savvy, he came over to check us out.

So here was this 10,000-pound killer whale swimming up to us and sticking his nose out of the water to see what's what. My urge was to talk to him, like you'd talk to somebody's dog or horse who came up to you. But his keepers asked us to ignore him -- as much as you can ignore a killer whale hanging out next to your boat -- and we moved on.

Q. It seems like a lot of effort for one whale-- what's it costing, and where's the money coming from?

A. It is an expensive project -- feeding Keiko 100 pounds of herring a day, keeping boats and a helicopter running, paying for satellite and radio tracking tags, maintaining his bay and paying staffers -- all told it runs to about $2.5 million a year. Since the effort to free Keiko began, back in the 1990s, various groups have spent an estimated $17 million to $20 million. The money has come from charities -- it started with children sending in their spare change, and is now being kept afloat, for the most part, by grants from one philanthropist.

Q. What do Icelanders think of this whole project?

A. Most of the locals we talked to smiled and shook their heads when they learned we were working on a story about Keiko. They seem sort of amused and skeptical. They can't quite figure spending that kind of money on one whale, and they figure he's got it pretty good where he's at -- regular meals and lots of exercise in a picturesque bay -- so they figure, why would he ever think of leaving his new home?

Q. Realistically, will Keiko ever be a free, wild whale?

A. That's the million-dollar question. Skeptics point to the fact that Keiko has lived in captivity for more than 20 years and seems perfectly happy to hang out with humans. They also note that he's never spent more than a few minutes at a time interacting with wild whales, and he probably 'speaks' a strange variant of the language the native whales use to communicate. All this is a problem, since the experts figure he needs to be adopted by a pod in order to survive. Common wisdom for most big predators has long been that once accustomed to captivity, they can't survive in the wild.

Keiko's keepers say he's surprised skeptics before, and may well surprise them again. He survived airline flights from Mexico to Oregon and from Oregon to Iceland, recovered from a skin disease and gained a needed 2,000 pounds in captivity, and is getting more curious about the ocean environment -- sometimes he even catches himself a wild fish snack, where a few years ago he wouldn't even turn his head to eat a fish thrown in the water next to him.

I'm no whale expert, but he seems busy and content where he is. Keiko's minders say even if he never returns to the wild, they're still giving him a much better life. And they're learning a lot about an important species at the top of the ocean food chain.

Q. What does Keiko's future look like?

A. Unless he hooks up with a pod of wild whales in the next couple of weeks -- which is when orcas migrate out of the area -- Keiko will spend the winter in his pen. Then the Ocean Futures Society will see if a new fish farm planned for the same bay gets built, and if its tons of fish, food and waste affect the water quality in Keiko's pen. If it does, they say they may have to move him again, but for now they're taking a wait-and-see position.

Long term, either Keiko will hook up with wild whales and swim away, to be tracked by satellite tag as he takes up his new, wild life, or he won't, in which case Ocean Futures is committed to taking good care of him for the rest of his life.

How long will that be? Well, killer whales in captivity don't usually live past 25 or 30 -- and Keiko is already around 22 or 23 years old. But wild male orcas can live to be 60, and his keepers hope that's the time frame they're working with now.

• Ocean Futures Society

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