A whale of a lie behind a fishy tale

Free Willy? It could go badly wrong. Not for nothing is the sea called cruel

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The Hollywood star was in the pool when I arrived, and he had the kind of schedule most of us only dream about. First came a rubdown, then a session with his personal trainer, followed by a light lunch. "There is squid, herring, sardines and smelt, all top quality," explained the publicist. "You could do worse than live on his diet. He eats about 200 pounds a day."

No, it is not the most expensive bouillabaisse on America's West Coast, but a freezerful of fish for Keiko, the killer whale who leapt to fame as the star of the Free Willy films. It has been a year since Keiko came to this pool - a custom-built $7.3m tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium - and it is not only his appetite that now seems larger than life. Keiko has four staff devoted to his care, and keeping him here costs half a million dollars a year.

Even by Tinseltown standards that is not cheap. His bills are paid by donations and that is a lot of charity for one whale. There is something fishy here, and that has to do with Hollywood, damage control and our love of happy endings.

Not long ago Keiko was just another amusement park attraction jumping through hoops for his dinner. In this he was like the other 50 killer whales in captivity. Caught off Iceland in 1979 when he was two, Keiko spent time at Marineland in Ontario before being sold to Reino Aventura in Mexico City. It was here that Warner Brothers filmed him for its story about a whale helped to freedom by a boy after being threatened by unscrupulous amusement park owners.

Free Willy was a surprise hit, making $150m worldwide and spawning a sequel, with another currently in production. But it also landed Warner Brothers with a public relations nightmare when it was revealed that the star himself was living in a pool that was too small and too warm. He may have been the best-loved killer whale in Latin America - well, he was the only one - but he was also the most unhealthy, with a drooping dorsal fin and a skin condition that is the whale equivalent of herpes.

By the time the sequel had premiered, the damage was almost completely in control, with plans well advanced for moving Keiko to Oregon. Not only was he going to a bigger, better and colder pool, but he was also to be prepared for freedom - just like Willy. "The goal of the project has always been release but there are big obstacles," says an Oregon Aquarium spokeswoman. "It has never been done before and at this point he would die. He is not healthy enough, and he's too dependent on people."

This is an understatement. Keiko loves people, and they love him. "We are his family. We are his pod," says a mammologist, Mark Trimm. "We call him a one-in-a-million whale because he does not have the hormonal mood swings you normally see." Perhaps Keiko just does not have the time to be grumpy: from 7am to 10pm he is busy with aerobics, socialisation and play. After then one of his humans may drop by to see a movie with him. (Keiko, who watches through his observation window, hates nature programmes and loves action movies such as Lethal Weapon.)

"We are here for his sake. What we do is entirely based on rehabilitation. This has never been done before," says mammologist Nolan Harvey. Keiko has responded well to the regime - gaining 1,000lb to his current 9,000 and looking much healthier - but he has a long way to go before he swims free.

So do we. There is much we do not know about killer whales - for instance, when and how they sleep - and we are particularly ignorant about the pods in Icelandic waters. If Keiko is freed he needs to be returned to his original pod. This could be identified only by dialect - each pod has a distinct one - but matching Keiko's is difficult as he "speaks" a rather odd patois that includes dolphin noises (they lived with him in Mexico) and a whistle like a Mexican fire engine.

Over the years Keiko has learned scores of "behaviours" but none so far involve anything as basic as killing. "They are the apex predator; nothing hunts a killer whale," says Mark Trimm, as we watch a documentary showing killer whales ambushing seal pups. Keiko leaves the observation window; if you've never seen a live fish, it is going to be some time before you are lunching on seal pup.

As well as becoming a killer, to be freed Keiko would have to be disease- free and fit enough to swim up to 100 miles a day. None of this dampens the media's enthusiasm for a feel-good story. "I'm on the West Coast of America with a Hollywood star who is preparing for a new free life," began an ITV report last week.

Nathan Labudde, of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation in San Francisco, is almost evangelical about it all: "People are astonished that we are tackling this against such incredible odds. But we heard the same rhetoric when he was languishing in a pool in Mexico. Nobody believed we could do it, and we did. People need to believe in this."

In the movie Willy leaps to freedom and is soon cavorting on the high seas to a Michael Jackson tune. In reality, freedom has its drawbacks. Iceland is a pro-whaling nation and the sea isn't called cruel for nothing. In his pool, Keiko is rich and famous. In the ocean he is just another whale. The idea of a free Keiko could be the biggest whopper of them all.

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