'Free Willy' whale still a star

Saturday, August 23, 2003

— Keiko the "Free Willy" whale still doesn't want to be free.

It's been about a year since Keiko was freed from his pen -- and swam straight back to human companionship. With the killer whale drawing 200 to 400 fans a day, the bay he calls home seems more like a low-budget "Keikoland" than an experiment in returning a captive orca to the wild.

To keep people from entering the water, Keiko's keepers posted a 24-hour guard and put up orange ropes with "no access" signs along the shore. Temporary nets span the bay to keep small boats out.

Local farmers charge 20 kroner (about $2.70) for parking in dirt lots with official-looking Keiko signs. Other signs point down a well-worn path through the trees to the world's most famous whale.

Under the rusted, corrugated roof of a waterfront shack used by Keiko's minders, Keiko T-shirts for sale sway in the wind.

"The perfect thing for us would be to be left alone," says Thorbjorg Valdis Kristjansdottir, a marine biologist who goes by the name Tobba and is one of the Hollywood star's four keepers.

But that's not happening, despite the remote, rural location of Taknes Bay.

"There is always somebody trying to get down to the water," says Tobba, a tall, blond Icelander whose fair complexion is burned red from hours in the sun watching over Keiko. "People come at all hours."

She says they even foiled a late-night attempt by two drunken Norwegian youths to steal the six-ton orca by leading him away with a small boat.

Keiko's stardom came from the three "Free Willy" films, in which a young boy befriends a captive killer whale and coaxes him to jump over a sea park wall to freedom.

That launched an ongoing $20 million drive to make Keiko the first orca truly returned to nature. Tobba and her teammates are attempting to integrate Keiko into a pod of wild whales.

Orcas that normally pass through the area did not come this year, depriving Keiko of contact with them. But Tobba says Keiko does tail slaps and jumps called "side breaches" used by orca to stun fish, "something he learned from wild whales."

Keiko, estimated to be 26 years old, was captured near Iceland in 1979 and sold to the marine park industry. The drive to free him started 10 years ago, after he was found ailing in a Mexico City aquarium.

Keiko, which means "lucky one" in Japanese, was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, then airlifted to Iceland in 1998. His handlers there prepared him for the wild, teaching him to catch live fish.

Keiko was released from Iceland in July 2002. He swam straight for Norway on a 870-mile trek that seemed to be a search for human companionship.