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NATURE

'Free Willy' progressing toward real freedom

Keiko
RELATED VIDEO
CNN's Rusty Dornin checks in on the former film star's progress
Windows Media 28K 80K
  

March 11, 1999
Web posted at: 4:26 p.m. EST (2126 GMT)

WESMAN ISLANDS, Iceland (CNN) -- Most Icelanders have suffered this year during one of the worst winters ever, but one native who recently returned actually enjoys the weather. Keiko, a killer whale who has spent most of his life in captivity in North America, is adapting well to the semi-wild in a secluded bay and could be released into the open sea as early as this summer.

Critics predicted the star of the hit movie "Free Willy" would experience frostbite when he returned to the frigid waters in September. But the rehabilitating whale has proved them wrong.

"He's thriving," said Bob Ratliffe of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. "He's actually energized by the weather the worse it gets. He jumps out of water to get sprayed by the salt spray."

Keiko still does tricks or receives handouts occasionally, reminders of life in captivity since 1979. He was captured at the age of 1 or 2.

Since then a long odyssey has taken the black and white seafarer from Canada to Mexico to the United States. In 1982 he was moved to an amusement park in Ontario. Three years later another park took him to Mexico City.

There, the 6.4-meter (21-foot) sea mammal reportedly lived in a cramped pen with an excessively warm temperature. The 1993 film drew attention to his plight and in 1996 the Free Willy Keiko Foundation moved him to a facility in Newport, Oregon.

The foundation has spent over $12 million on its efforts to repatriate Keiko, and late last year flew the roughly 40,000-pound (18,100-kilogram) creature aboard a C-17 transport plane to his aquatic halfway house near the Wesman Islands.

Since his return, he increasingly has shown characteristics of a wild whale, diving more frequently, eating more live fish and generally becoming more active.

Keiko still must clear some hurdles before he can be released into the open sea. Trainers plan to give him a simulated stay in the wild this summer. They hope to enclose a larger bay, outfit Keiko with a satellite transmitter and then take him for a walk.

"We'll boat train him so he'll follow a target, and then we can recall him back to the boat if necessary," says Jeff Foster, also of the foundation. "That gives us access out to deeper water."

Keiko

Keiko has had limited contact with other marine mammals, but none of the encounters were close enough to learn much about his ability to interact in the wild. A harbor seal wandered into the pen, but quickly exited after spotting Keiko. "We've had pilot whales and mink whales and harbor porpoises, and we do see a change in behavior," Foster says. "He becomes a lot more vocal. He's a lot more active when these animals do show."

The question remains, however: Can Keiko relate with other animals in such a way as to ensure his survival?

"There's the possibility that freedom may come this summer, but we're not going to do this in a cavalier fashion. It may very well be the following summer," Ratliffe says.

And if Keiko can't adapt, the foundation is prepared to take care of the famous leviathan for remainder of his life at an annual cost of about $1 million.

Correspondent Rusty Dornin and Reuters contributed to this report.


RELATED STORIES:
'Free Willy' star swims closer to freedom
March 10, 1999
Keiko begins a whale of a journey
September 9, 1998
Showbuzz
August 5, 1998
Fight brews over 'Free Willy' star's fate
October 26, 1997
Recovered 'Free Willy' star swims with delight
January 8, 1997

RELATED SITES:
Oregon Coast Aquarium
   •Official Keiko Home Page
   •Air Force arrives in Oregon for Keiko's journey home
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