Willy Won't He?

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HELEN GIBSON Heimaey, Iceland
Keiko, in Klettsvik Bay, Iceland

All day long, the silver helicopter alternately swoops and hovers over the waters around southern Iceland's volcanic Westman Islands. On a cliff-top, a retired Icelandic coastguard captain watches the ocean through binoculars, occasionally talking by radio to the Americans in the chopper. Both keep in touch with three small boats that tack around the islands like erratic beetles, changing direction abruptly, doubling back on themselves, then spending long periods in one spot. For the uninitiated, it's hard to make out what is going on. A drug-smuggling bust? A search and rescue operation? The filming of the next James Bond movie? The reality is odder still: all these humans are scurrying around in an effort to take a killer whale for an ocean walk and find him some of his own kind to talk to.

An extraordinary effort, but then again this is no ordinary cetacean. The 6.7-m, 4,500-kg orca with the droopy dorsal fin is none other than Keiko, the star of the 1993 hit movie Free Willy. In the film, Keiko plays a killer whale condemned to a sad life in cruel captivity until finally released to ocean freedom through the efforts of a small boy. The part came easily to Keiko whose own real life story paralleled Willy's, and the movie inadvertently made his plight known worldwide. Now, in an ambitious experiment, a dedicated team of scientists, animal behaviorists, trainers, divers and technicians want to make the fairytale screen ending come true. They are working to free Keiko from dependence upon humans and teach him to live again in the wild seas from which he was captured two decades ago.

The radio crackles with terse reports from the boat with the hydrophones, devices that listen to underwater sounds: "We have lots of vocalizations ... Keiko is looking at the wild ones ... they're just off our bow." All three boats are gathered near a circle of churned sea, where gannets are plunging like dive bombers into a shoal of herring. The birds take advantage of the work of the orcas, which round up the fish and force them to the surface. When eventually a pod with one juvenile, four females and five males distinguishable by the length of their dorsal fins leave the feeding ground, Keiko swims in line with them.

"It's like taking your kid to school for his first day and watching from the gate," says animal behaviorist Jeff Foster, who has worked with whales for 30 years and is one of Keiko's 18-member staff. But Keiko does not, Hollywood-style, swim off with his relatives into the sunset. Once again he returns to the boat and his more familiar human companions. MORE>>

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If Charles Vinick, sitting in the chopper overhead, is disappointed, he doesn't show it. Instead, he is upbeat about the progress made since Keiko saw his first wild cousins a few months ago ... and fled in fright. Vinick is executive vice president of the California-based Ocean Futures, a non-profit environmental organization headed by Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques), that has taken over the job of returning Keiko to the wild. Ocean Futures sees this as a "labor of the heart," but hopes it will also help raise public interest in marine issues and the environmental plight of the oceans. "The knowledge we are acquiring with this enormous effort is going to help all whales, all orcas, and we will grow up better people in the process and manage our resources better," says Cousteau.

He speaks with confidence, but no one has ever tried this before, and the obstacles to success are far greater than the breakwater over which the fictional Willy had to jump to regain his freedom. For a start, whales' lives, 80% of which are spent below the surface, are a mystery, even though some resident killer whale pods in the Puget Sound, on the west coast of North America, have been followed for years. "We have seen a tiny percentage of the life of just a tiny percentage of whales," says Foster.

Keiko has shown signs of wanting to mate, which may push him to try to join a group with some fertile females, but whether he will be accepted into a pod is impossible to predict because no one is quite sure of the dos-and-don'ts of orcan society. Says Vinick, "Anyway, not having lived in the wild for so long, he would probably initially be a less dominant male than others."

Keiko also has had to be trained to "unlearn" what he was taught during his long years in captivity, when this highly social animal's only contacts were a few dolphins and humans. Bit by bit, he has had to be distanced from humans, and even his trainers reluctantly have had to drop, albeit gradually, the affectionate fuss they always made of him; the cameras he loved and responded to are kept away; he is no longer hand-fed, and has been retrained with rewards to swim away from, rather than toward, all boats other than his "walk" boat. The approved vessel uses a one-second computer-generated tone to summon him, but the tone will be discarded forever if and when Keiko finally swims off with a pod.

Physically, too, Keiko has had to be conditioned for a different life. The easy part was training him to swim faster and for longer periods and, using weighted balls placed at different depths, to dive ever deeper. It was trickier to teach him to catch his own live fish, after years of frozen fish dinners. For the first three months after retraining started, he kept returning the fish, as he did with his toys.

Whether Keiko's remaining instinctive social and navigational skills the ones no one can teach will be sufficient is impossible to say. At least, says Vinick in tones of relief, "Keiko speaks killer whale." The experts hadn't been quite sure. Long years alone in a concrete-sided pool which, unlike the open seas, quickly bounced back any of the sounds Keiko made, will have done little to hone his conversational skills.

Keiko was only a juvenile of two in 1979 when he was captured in Icelandic waters by the Gudrun, a ship that, ironically, is based in Heimaey's harbor, next to the bay that is Keiko's present home. Shipped to a marine park in Canada, Keiko did not respond well to captivity and lesions started appearing on his skin. Within three years, he had been sold on to Reino Aventura amusement park in Mexico City, where he spent 11 years in a small concrete pool too shallow for a proper dive. The poorly filtered, artificially salted, sun-heated water bore no relation to the sub-Arctic seas of his habitat. He lost weight, became flabby and lethargic, and the viral skin infection spread. Reino Aventura tried to sell him on for years, but no one wanted a sick whale.

Producer Richard Donner's Free Willy saved him. The 1993 Warner Bros. movie was a hit, and was followed by an international public outcry, led chiefly by children, when it turned out that Willy in real life was Keiko, a sick and far from free whale. His living conditions were improved, but Keiko's health did not. Then in January 1996, United Parcel Service helped pick up the tab for flying him in an ice-water filled crate to a new home in Newport, Oregon a $7.3-million pool, four times the size of the Mexican tank, with pumped-in, 3C seawater deep enough to dive in. Organized by the environmental group, the Earth Island Institute, the pool was built with contributions from Warner Bros., the Humane Society of the U.S., and cell phone tycoon Craig McCaw. Away from business a generous, but shy and private environmental philanthropist, McCaw is a keen yachtsman who is particularly interested in the oceans. It is his silver helicopter and crew that are now helping in Heimaey.

It was the tens of thousands of children worldwide who raised money and sent letters about Keiko, however, who probably most effectively pricked a collective conscience. "We portrayed an animal released by humans that was a lie," says Cousteau. "In effect those kids gave us a kick in the butt and said 'Do something.'"

Keiko, whose public performances were stopped but could be watched through an underwater viewing panel, gained 900 kilos, mostly in muscle weight, within 18 months of arriving in Oregon. His skin disease cleared almost immediately, he started mastering the skills of catching his own fish and he seemed much happier. But Keiko was still not free.

September 1998: another long flight, this time bound for Iceland. Just before his trip, Keiko did something he had never done before. He chose to spend his last night in a shallow area, on the medical lift used when he had to have examinations and from which he would be lifted by sling the next morning. Keiko was ready to go.

Keiko adapted quickly to his new life just below the Arctic Circle. His new pool was the size of a soccer field, fenced off within the beautiful, cliff-protected Klettsvik Bay. After two storm-lashed winters with 180-km/h winds, Keiko graduated to the bay, 20 times the area of his pen and closed off with a 260-m-long barrier net. It was Keiko's first venture into a real chunk of open sea and to encourage him to explore, his trainers built a large sling shot called the HDS, (herring delivery system), which shot fish out 50 m in all directions. Keiko also was taken on long training swims behind his boat, to build up his stamina and speed. In April, a vet pronounced his immune system much stronger than a few years ago. "It's clear that living in Iceland appeals to Keiko," the vet said, and the following month a gate was opened in the barrier. Keiko, who by now had exchanged his wide, cuddly aquarium shape for that of a sleek, fit predator, went for his first "walk."

The costs in Iceland of bringing Keiko to this point including his daily 40 to 60 kilos of fish and an 18-member staff total around $3 million a year. Critics, including some of those Icelanders who are already resentful of the whaling ban imposed on them by other Western nations, have complained that such spending cannot be justified on one animal and a project of such unpredictable outcome.

But Keiko's people point out that only private money is involved, and that the project also supports half a dozen data-gathering scientific studies, including the darting of whales to take tiny skin scrapes for genetic testing. If Keiko leaves, invaluable data will continue to be collected for up to a year, through the small transmitters he carries.

The million-dollar question remains: Will Keiko ever return to the wild? "We simply don't know, it's not our decision," says Vinick. "All we can do is to provide Keiko with the opportunity to go, and still be here if he chooses to stay with us." If he does leave, there are risks: he may join a pod and get hurt in a fight over a mate. Or his new family may abandon him at some point, which would make it harder for this sociable cetacean to survive. If he does stay, Ocean Futures has pledged to look after him for life, not in another tank but possibly in a fenced-off bay either in Iceland or elsewhere. If the answer has not come by the middle of this month, the worsening weather will probably postpone it until further ocean walks early next spring.

This dedication to Keiko's welfare appears to go unquestioned by those around him. "You can't help but love this animal," says Vinick. "You get next to him and you feel an intrinsic strength and an intelligence. Keiko is also admired for what Vinick calls his "intestinal fortitude," a gutsiness that has defied all the professionals who, every step of the way, predicted he would never survive the next move. "I am in awe," says Cousteau. "When you look at the big picture you say this animal should be dead today. He is alive for two reasons: we gave him a chance and he has an incredible desire to live. Because of these, we are living an extraordinary adventure."

After all this time, letting go will come hard to the team. "When you're in the boat and 10,000 pounds of whale comes up beside you and breathes, soaking you with the moisture from his blowhole, it gives you a feeling so special it's hard to describe," says Vinick. The final scene of this extraordinary adventure still awaits a script. This time, however, it will be written by Keiko himself.