Originally created 09/06/98

Keiko's off to Iceland, but can this whale hunt?



NEWPORT, Ore. -- The fans are growing restless, but the star makes them wait.

Ten minutes, 15 minutes pass. Flip-flops shuffle on the concrete floor. Babies wail, but nobody leaves.

"Here he comes!" someone finally shouts, and camcorders leap to shoulders as the long-awaited one glides into view. Nodding his head with quiet assurance, he notices a little girl near the front and sidles up to the window between them.

Then he sticks out a tongue the size of a ham and wags it. The gallery erupts in laughter. Cameras flash.

Keiko, the world's most famous killer whale, has charmed yet another audience.

Millions of children know him from "Free Willy," the 1993 box-office hit that made this 5-ton orca a big name in Hollywood.

He became even better known when word spread that Keiko, unlike the killer whale he portrayed, didn't get to swim free at the movie's end. He was seriously ill, held captive in a cramped, tepid pool at a Mexico City amusement park.

Airlifted out in January 1996 and nursed back to vigor at the Oregon Coast Aquarium here in Newport, he's now being coached for his most challenging role yet -- transforming from Keiko the charming performer to Keiko the ruthless predator.

This Wednesday, weather permitting, an Air Force C-17 will fly Keiko back to his home waters off the coast of Iceland. There, he will shuck the celebrity he has known for most of his 20 years, trading it for a remote sea pen visited only by his trainers.

His benefactors hope the pen, 60 percent larger than his pool here and exposed to ocean currents and noise, will be a halfway house for Keiko's eventual release into the North Atlantic. But despite a $12 million investment, they say there's no guarantee that Keiko will ever be ready for life in the wild.

Setting a captive orca free has never been tried, and nobody is certain that good intentions won't pave Keiko's road to a watery hell.

He's in good health, but questions remain: Will this whale hunt? Does he want to? What makes Keiko happy, or can an orca even know what happiness is?

It all seemed so simple in the movie. Threatened by a villainous amusement-park owner who tries to kill him for insurance money, Willy escapes to the open ocean with the help of a boy named Jesse. A happy ending for all -- especially for Warner Bros., which grossed $78 million from the film.

Keiko's real-life story, while not so tidy, is no less dramatic. Captured in 1979 off the coast of Iceland as a whale no more than 2 years old, he was shuttled to aquariums in Iceland and Ontario, then sold in 1985 to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City.

There he performed several shows daily for 11 years, in a pool that seemed increasingly cramped as he doubled in length to 20 feet. His native Icelandic waters were a chilly, whale-friendly 40 to 50 degrees; his Mexico City pool of artificially salted tap water could reach 80 degrees in summer.

Warty lesions erupted on his flippers and tail. Sapped by the heat, Keiko spent most of his time between performances floating like a log. His back was out of the water so much that his dorsal fin drooped.

By 1992, when the "Free Willy" crew arrived to start filming, Keiko was one ton underweight.

Reino Aventura's owners had been trying to find him a better home for years, but there were no takers for their ailing whale -- until the movie was released and publicity spread about the real Willy's plight.

School kids collected pennies to help save Keiko. Warner Bros. gave more than $2 million. The owners of Reino Aventura donated Keiko to the newly formed Free Willy Keiko Foundation, which in January 1996 installed Keiko in a $7.3 million pool built especially for him at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

The pool holds 2 million gallons, nearly four times more than his old one. It's filled with fresh sea water filtered and chilled to 50 degrees. Ten trainers feed Keiko, play with him and fret over his every move and utterance.

There are no performances, but visitors get to gawk at Keiko from underwater windows. He gawks right back, paying special attention to children.

Keiko has gained at least a ton of muscle and blubber, so much that he has stretch marks across his belly. The unsightly warts, caused by a virus, have all but disappeared. When he arrived in Oregon, he could hold his breath for three minutes. Now he can stay under for 18.

But there's more to surviving in the wild than physical prowess, and some whale experts believe Keiko's long association with humans has made him a poor candidate for release. He may look like a wild orca, they argue, but in disposition he has more in common with a golden retriever.

His trainers often discipline him simply by turning their backs, withholding the attention he craves. One of Keiko's favorite rewards is to turn belly-up and get a nice, long scratch on his flippers and flukes.

"If they end up letting him go, he'll have to adapt to a very different environment. He's not going to get his tummy rubbed," says Brad Andrews, who oversees 20 captive orcas for Sea World theme parks and has no intention of letting his whales join the "Free Willy" bandwagon.

"Will Keiko adapt? We really don't know," Andrews says. "I don't think we should put the animal at risk by experimenting."

Keiko's handlers acknowledge the risk but say it is justified.

"Keiko is exquisitely cared for here," says Diane Hammond, a spokeswoman for the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. "But his life is lacking in ways we can't compensate for. He needs companionship, stimulation. He needs to be in his world, not our world."

His trainers have tried to prepare him for independence with games, problem-solving exercises and fish-chasing sessions.

Having dined for years on dead seafood, Keiko initially didn't realize he was supposed to eat the live, wriggling fish that were placed in his mouth. He has made rapid progress, however. A few weeks ago, he chased down his entire daily ration of fish -- about 140 pounds -- for the first time.

"His skills are by no means up to what he'd need in the wild," Hammond says. "But it's a good start."

Keiko recognizes more than 50 hand signals, including one -- arms reaching forward, index fingers pointing -- that means "Do anything you want, as long as you didn't already do it." Trainers use the command to prod Keiko's creativity; his record is 38 behaviors with no repeats.

Such displays of intelligence, combined with an imposing presence that can only be described as charisma, are what endear Keiko to his fans.

Visitors often talk to him through the viewing windows. A few even claim he talks back, including one self-described "animal communicator" who says Keiko told her he wants to stay at the aquarium as an ambassador from the animal kingdom.

Keiko's trainers laugh off such "anthropomorphism," the assigning of human qualities to an animal. But they can't help doing it, either. Even scientists end up describing Keiko in very unscientific terms.

They say he can be mischievous, trustworthy, bored, gentle, kind, exuberant, shameless, playful, stubborn, moody, or eager to please. They tell of the security guard who one night sobbed out her troubles by the pool while Keiko floated nearby, listening patiently. But they warn that Keiko can also be fickle, bonding with certain trainers and then dropping them for no apparent reason.

"You can be the flavor of the month, then all of a sudden you're not. It's happened to several people," trainer Brian O'Neill says.

O'Neill is this month's flavor. Not given to small talk with humans or whales, O'Neill is a stern taskmaster in training sessions, and Keiko seems to respect him.

As much as anyone, O'Neill is tuned in to Keiko's attempts to communicate. When the killer whale lets out a short, ascending squeak -- it sounds like "doo-WHIP" -- O'Neill knows Keiko is resting near the visitor's gallery. When O'Neill hears a harsh squawk on the hydrophone, he can tell without looking that Keiko is aggressively batting around one of his toys.

"But do I know what he's thinking? Not a clue," O'Neill says. "I wouldn't even make a guess."

It's that gulf, at once frustrating and soul-stirring, that convinces Keiko's handlers they are doing what's best for him.

Throughout his years in concrete pools, Keiko has never stopped talking, and his human companions have listened without understanding.

In a few days, if all goes as planned, he will squeak and squawk inside a commodious pen floating in a sheltered cove of the North Atlantic.

This time, he may get a reply.