A whale of an ending for Free Willy
Friday 11 September 1998
It was tears for his fans in Oregon, in the United States, as they waved goodbye to their famous Hollywood resident and smiles in Iceland as he arrived on the rugged, volcanic Vestmann Islands just off the mainland.
He was flown from the US to Iceland aboard a C-17, one of the world's largest aircraft. The Vestmann Islands runway is designed only for light aircraft, and with just a few hundred yards to play with a heavy landing was unavoidable. The aircraft was damaged and the waiting crowd became anxious, but moments later Keiko appeared looking unscathed and his tank was rolled onto a lorry.
The curious and the global media had turned out in their hundreds to witness the arrival of this unusual parcel. The lorry - with a police escort - looked like a carnival float with a live killer whale on board. Keiko was then loaded by crane onto a barge and sailed off to his pounds 1.5m floating pen in a bay.
The last time I saw Keiko he was underweight and had a nasty skin disease after spending years in a cramped pool in Mexico City. His recovery was clear as he was lifted out of his tank and lowered into the water. The five-ton fellow - who has put on at least a ton since he left Mexico two and a half years ago - looked well considering he had just flown 4,000 miles.
Keiko's new enclosure is the closest he has come to his native North Atlantic environment since his capture in the Seventies. His floating pen, the size of a football pitch, is all that separates him from the ocean.
But not everyone was happy about his arrival in Iceland. John Gunnarsunn caught Keiko off the coast of Iceland 19 years ago. He says he was just doing his job. Now he is not keen to catch up with the orca he sold to a company across the Atlantic.
"These Americans are crazy" he said. "Why bring Keiko back here after so long in captivity? There are plenty of killer whales left in the wild here. Why spend so much money on a whale when children starve in Sudan."
Keiko has been dependent on humans all his life, and his progress in his Icelandic pen will determine the timing of his release. He must learn to catch fish, adapt to the cold water and find a family of whales - a pod - that will accept him. Conservationists believe that Keiko's keepers are attempting the impossible.
"We just want what's best for Keiko," said Diane Hammond of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. "He will not be released until many obstacles have been overcome. If release is not possible then there are other options. Keiko can remain in the pen, have more freedom in the bay or even be a commuting whale; he can swim out to the ocean and then come back to the pen for food. As long as we can say we did everything we could for Keiko we will be happy."
The locals are well aware of the benefits Keiko can bring. An increase in tourism is expected and the government has given permission for the local school to have lessons from within Keiko's pen. "We are so lucky," 10-year-old Gurronn said. "How many children get to study a killer whale close up and meet a movie star in one go?"
Yesterday, Keiko was nursing his sore muscles after his long journey. He seemed to be adapting well to his new home. The final chapter of his adventure remains unwritten. Whether it will have the same fairy tale ending as the movie he starred in - when he won his freedom with a dramatic leap over a harbour wall - remains to be seen.
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