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Keiko, the killer whale

Killer whale Keiko's journey has been a Hollywood saga

Web posted on: Wednesday, September 09, 1998 3:55:47 PM

From Correspondent Gloria Hillard

PORTLAND, Oregon (CNN) -- The only thing remaining in the story of Keiko the killer whale is the Hollywood ending.

That could come soon as the 5-ton star of the "Free Willy" movies readies on Wednesday to be moved from his Portland aquarium to his home waters off the coast of Iceland. The return home will parallel the story of the "Free Willy" movies. As the emotional event unfolds, producers of the film are remembering the whale's incredible journey.


Orca I.Q.: How fast they go and other things to know

Interactive Map: Trace Keiko's travels during captivity

Keikology: How much do you know about Keiko and his deep-water cohorts?

Image Gallery: Up close and personal with the "Free Willy" star


'This lonely whale'

While searching for a killer whale to play to role of Willy in the first "Free Willy," Jennie Jew Tugend, along with Warner Bros. executive producers Lauren Shuler-Donner and Richard Donner, discovered Keiko in 1992 at a small aquatic theme park in Mexico City. The whale was suffering from the effects of living 19 years in captivity without proper care.

"The aquarium was empty and at the bottom of the amphitheater was this lonely whale," recalls Tugend. "(Keiko) was languishing in a swimming pool. He was lethargic, sick with a skin rash and his dorsal fin bent over."

Tugend and company found themselves in the real-life scenario of the scripted story. Veterinarians were called in to nurse the ailing whale back to health. "This was the reality -- he had to be freed," Tugend said.

Movie paralleled life

By the time Willy's story was in the theaters, Keiko's story was in the headlines.

"We got letters and phone calls mostly from chlidren saying 'Free Willy! You did it in the movies, you can do it in real life,'" Tugend says.

And Warner Brothers found itself in an unprecedented situation -- trying to make its Hollywood story come true.

The studio donated $1 million in 1994 to found the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. It would be another two years before the feeble whale would be delivered to his new home in Oregon.

Scene from "Free Willy"

'It made people connect with whales'

But the Hollywood story was just completing its first act.

On the big screen, Willy jumps a harbor breakwater and swims to freedom with the help of an ancient Haida Indian prayer and a boy named Jesse. His real trip home will be much more complicated, involving a special water-filled fiberglass box, an Air Force cargo plane and, finally, a floating pen the size of a football field as his halfway house.

Keiko's handlers began taking steps towards the ultimate goal of returning the whale to the waters where he was captured in 1979, and the plan has now reached the brink of success.

Trainers expect to spend two summers evaluating whether Keiko can make the transition to open-sea living. If he can't, he'll live out his days in the 250-foot-long, 100-foot-wide sea pen -- at a cost of $1 million a year. The foundation, which has already spent $12.5 million on Keiko's plight, is committed to financially supporting his open-sea life if necessary.

Shuler-Donner says the saga of Keiko "made children and adults alike aware of their beauty, their grace, their curiosity. It made people connect with whales in a way they've never done before."

Jason James Richter, who starred as Willy's human friend Jesse, has the fondest wish for his former co-star.

"I guess my wish for him now is to be reunited with his family," Richter says, referring to the plotline of the sequel to "Free Willy," "The Adventure Home."

There's no real guarantee Keiko will find his family swimming Icelandic waters, but it certainly would be a Hollywood ending.

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