Children build memorial for Keiko

— Hundreds of schoolchildren in western Norway bid farewell to Keiko the killer whale Thursday by building a burial mound of stones over the Hollywood star's grave.

The six-ton hero of the "Free Willy" movies died Dec. 12, likely from pneumonia, in remote Taknes Bay, where he had lived after swimming to Norway from Iceland in 2002.

"It was very nice. There were a lot of people, about 300 children and some adults," said Thorbjorg Valdis Kristjansdottir, a marine biologist who was part of the team that sought to return Keiko to the wild.

The orca, about 26, was buried in a pasture a few yards from where he died. The Dec. 15 burial was done at night and kept secret to avoid media attention.

The children, most from village schools in Halsa on Norway's west coast, placed stone after stone atop the grave to create a burial mound, or cairn, a tradition that dates back to pre-Christian times in Norway.

Keiko, which means "Lucky One" in Japanese, gained fame in the "Free Willy" movie about a young boy who befriends a captive killer whale and coaxes him to jump over a sea park wall to freedom. Two sequels followed.

The films captured people's imagination and prompted a $20 million program to free Keiko for real from a Mexico City aquarium, where he had been found ailing.

He was brought to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996, then to Iceland, near where he was born, for preparation for his return to the wild. When he was released in 2002, he swam 870 miles to the waters near the village of Halsa.

Keiko was an instant hit in early September 2002, swimming with people and allowing them to crawl on his back. Crowds became so big that animal protection authorities imposed a law against approaching him.

The people of the village of about 1,750 people some 250 miles northwest of Oslo saw Keiko as the biggest thing to hit their waters -- and not just because of his roughly 25-foot length.

"Keiko made us famous. All of Norway and large parts of the world now know where Halsa is. That's not bad. It's great. We had to make some sort of monument," said Mayor Margrete Seter.


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