Blubber off

KEIKO, the Free Willy whale, was shipped from Mexico to Oregon by UPS this month - in one of the parcel service's aircraft rather than in a cardboard box. But whether the cetacean cinema superstar makes it home to the icy waters off Iceland seems doubtful. Johann Sigurjonsson, deputy director of the Marine Research Institute in Reykjavik says the notion of rehabilitating Keiko and then re- turning him to the wild is little more than a publicity stunt.

''We had a group of people ... visit us in the autumn of 1993,'' he said, ''and we told them in no uncertain terms that we would not allow them to free the animal into Icelandic waters.'' The Icelanders say they're worried about Keiko's skin lesions and a possible disease threat to other North Sea whales. After his rehabilitation on the Pacific coast, Keiko's supporters may have to do a daring Free Willy-style operation to return him to the waters where he was captured 12 years ago.