Keiko, the star of 'Free Willy'


Illy is finally free - well, almost. After two decades in captivity, Keiko is back in his home waters for the first time since his capture in 1979.

The orc (killer whale) was only a two-year-old calf when he was caught in the North Atlantic near Iceland. Keiko's first stop was a marine park in Ontario. Then he was sold to an amusement park in Mexico City.

Keiko was spotted by Warner Bros. in 1992, and the killer whale became the star of the hit film "Free Willy" (1993), about a boy who befriends a captive orc and makes plans to set him free. Keiko did not appear in the sequel, "Free Willy 2: the Adventure Home" (1995). For that one, filmmakers used mechanical killer whales and footage of wild orcs instead.

In November 1993, a magazine story exposed the woeful condition of Keiko and the inadequacy of his facilities in Mexico City. Letters poured in to Warner Bros., asking them to help. They did.

On Jan. 7, 1996, Keiko was moved to a $7.3-million rehabilitation facility in Newport, Ore. This past September, five-ton Keiko was flown by C-17 military transport plane to an open-sea pen near Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.

"We're trying to bring him as far along as we can," says Keiko's trainer, Jeff Foster. "The next phase is netting off the bay. We're going to make a real push to get him out in the summer of 2000." The larger enclosure will help trainers determine whether Keiko can survive on his own or will always need some degree of human help.

Mr. Foster says Keiko is progressing nicely. Once the bay is netted, he and the other trainers will work with the animal on his physical conditioning. For now, though, Keiko is not interested in hunting live salmon, Foster says. He prefers his usual diet of herring.

Trainers are also studying local killer-whale pod behavior to see if Keiko has a chance of joining them. A radio transmitter is being developed to help track Keiko once he is released.

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