NEWPORT, ORE. — FREEDOM seems so close for Keiko the killer whale. The star of the movie "Free Willy," who jumped over a jetty to escape the bad guys in the 1993 film's dramatic finale, is being run through a battery of preparations for his eventual release to the wild.
But the 21-foot orc's handlers hesitate to predict a Hollywood ending. No killer whale held in captivity has ever been released. And Keiko's trainers at the Oregon Coast Aquarium are concerned that the 7,720-pound sea beast's character may hurt his chances in the wild.
He's too nice, they say. Too human.
Keiko (pronounced KAY-ko) spent 10 years at a small amusement park pool in Mexico City, entertaining cheering fans with wild leaps and by playing with dolphins and sea lions. But in the wild, those other animals are often a killer whale's dinner.
"You have to teach him to eat his friends," says Karla Corral, his trainer from Mexico. "That's not easy."
The first order of business for Keiko's trainers is to make him fit enough to survive in the open sea. The orc, whose age is estimated at 18 or 19, was a ton underweight and had some other health problems, including skin lesions, when a United Parcel Service airplane flew him from Mexico City's Reino Aventura water park to Newport, Ore., last January amid worldwide fanfare.
The animal's health will also have to improve before the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation allows his release, something that organizers hope to accomplish within two years.
Keiko's fitness has improved beyond his trainers' expectations. He appears to be blossoming in his new home, a tank four times larger than his shallow pool in Mexico. And his appetite has improved.
He has gone from a daily diet of 125 pounds of food (mostly Spanish mackerel) to 245 pounds of herring, sardines, squid, and - although he has yet to fully acquire a taste for it - salmon.
Keiko's trainers thought he was not verbal enough and would have trouble communicating with other whales when released. But almost immediately after arriving here, he began to make new noises. Some observers now say his chances for survival outside captivity are excellent.
Other success stories
Howard Garrett, administrator for the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Wash., gives Keiko an 80- to 90-percent chance of fending for himself on the outside. And he points out precedents set by other sea mammals.
In the 1960s, he says, a pilot whale named Bimbo, kept at a Santa Monica, Calif., marine park for eight years, was released after it quit performing and rammed its tank. The animal, freed after little rehabilitation, was spotted a year later in the Pacific, apparently adapting well.
In 1992, a bottle-nose dolphin that jumped from a net and escaped in the Bahamas after 17 years in captivity was spotted eight months later with other dolphins. He appeared well-adjusted, Mr. Garrett says.
"There's a lot more wild in them," he says, "than we give them credit for." Keiko was captured in 1979 at the age of 1 or 2 in the frigid Atlantic waters off southeast Iceland, where he was put in an aquarium in Saedyrasafnid.
He was later sold to an Ontario water park, which later sold him to the Mexico City amusement park.
The Center for Whale Research will attempt to locate Keiko's family in Iceland by tracking the distinctive calls of whale pods, testing their DNA, and photographing them.
All will be for naught if the Icelandic government does not approve Keiko's release. While no formal request has been made, Icelandic government officials have expressed concerns that Keiko might contaminate other killer whales with his skin condition.
It's a concern shared by Clint Wright, curator of marine mammals at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, British Columbia which holds two killer whales. Too little is known about Icelandic orca, he says, to make a smooth transition from captivity to the sea.
"It's a nice story. It appeals to people," Mr. Wright says. "But you have to look at the well-being of the pods and the well-being of the animal."
David Phillips, president of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, says it's too soon to discuss the logistics of Keiko's release.
After 10 years as the star of the Mexico City water park, Keiko is still very much a ham. On a recent afternoon, he rolled onto his side at the edge of his 25-foot-deep pool so that his trainer, Ms. Corral, could scratch him.
"It's hard not to domesticate him," says the aquarium's Diane Hammond as the orc began to coo on command. "It's hard not to imagine him as your dog or some other pet."
But pet orcs clearly weren't meant to be. And the attempt to free Keiko has fueled debate about whether sea mammals should be captured at all.
Keiko would still be in Mexico if he hadn't starred in "Free Willy" and garnered so much sympathy for his inadequate living conditions, Mr. Phillips says.
If Keiko is successfully returned to the wild, Garrett says, the public will question whether other captive whales should be returned also. Garrett is working for the release of a 32-year-old killer whale, Lolita, living in a Miami aquarium.
Others are trying to get a British Columbia whale named Corky released from a marine park in San Diego, Calif. Critics say both whales are too old and would not survive. But Garrett says female killer whales can live up to 80 years in the wild. And if Keiko's release is successful, the foundation plans to rehabilitate other whales for release.
"Our hope is that Keiko is the first of many," Phillips says, "that he is the ambassador that kicks it off."
Keiko's many fans
And what if the great black-and-white hope can't cope with freedom? Keiko has several options, Phillips said. He could be kept in a netted-off cove in Iceland. He could be taught a command to summon help if he got into trouble. Or he could live the rest of his life here at the aquarium.
Three underwater viewing windows allow visitors to watch Keiko glide through the cold water pumped in from nearby Yaquina Bay. Spectators don't seem to miss the jumps and tricks that killer whales typically perform at marine parks.
Instead, many wait for up to an hour to watch Keiko, most of them convinced he looked right at them. Whether he is released or not, the teenage orc has taught many humans to better appreciate his kind.
"We're not using the foundation as a platform to shut down other aquariums and parks," Phillips says. "We want to show by example what can be done."