3-year attempt to 'Free Willy' deemed a flop

By Donald G. McNeil Jr.

The sad fact is, it looks as if the world's most closely watched experiment in returning a cetacean to the wild is a bust.

Three years after he arrived back in these waters where he was captured some 22 years ago, Keiko, the movie star killer whale, has made it abundantly clear that his heart-tugging part in "Free Willy" was just a role.

His most likely fate is to remain in Iceland, but in a harbor less remote than this spectacular windswept bay, known as Klettsvik, on a volcanic island where he has 800-foot cliffs on three sides and an 800-foot-long net closing off the other, here among a group of islands some 10 miles south of Iceland.

And, it appears, his future will remain in tourism.

Humans seem to be the natural "pod" of Keiko. He has spent almost all of his 24 or 25 years in captivity. By some estimates, orcas can live for 50 years or longer.

Discovered in confinement in a Mexico City amusement park, Keiko was cast as a killer whale (Orcinus orca, actually a dolphin) named Willy who leaps his way to freedom after a brief captivity and is welcomed back to his family pod.

The movie inspired a successful effort to free Keiko, if only Keiko were ready to go.

But his handlers have never seen him catch a live fish for himself. He will do it to please them, but only because he's rewarded with a dead herring or a pat on the nose.

He has played with pods of orcas in the open ocean, but he doesn't stay with them. He makes sounds, but it's not clear they speak the same language.

Humans can't teach him to survive by pack hunting as fish-eating orcas do: diving fathoms under the herring, herding them into a ball, stunning them with tail slaps and then roaring through them, eating voraciously.

And just to exercise him, they must run through his old tricks: jumps and sprints for dead fish.

Storms have torn holes in his net big enough to drive a truck through, and he has stayed inside, near his steel fish pails and his old friends from the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where he was moved in 1996 to be acclimated to a life in the ocean.

Critics say Keiko's net should be pulled down and his fish cut off, forcing him to fend for himself. But Charles Vinick, executive vice president of Ocean Futures, Keiko's current owner, said he would probably just become a nuisance, begging for handouts from the fishing fleet in the Heimaey town harbor.

He has already scared a bird hunter in a small boat, and once followed a cruise ship when he was supposed to be searching for his family.

$300,000-a-month job

And now the money has run out.

Craig O. McCaw, the cellular phone magnate who is the chief backer of the $300,000-a-month effort to reintroduce Keiko to the wild, has seen his fortune shrink from $9 billion to an estimated $1 billion, and has cut back his help.

All summer, Ocean Futures had a 100-foot boat for Keiko's "walks" at sea, and use of McCaw's helicopter to hunt for pods to arrange play dates and to track the transmitter in Keiko's dorsal fin. Without that costly equipment, the outings become virtually impossible.

Almost no one may visit his bay home, so there is no tourist income, and many Icelanders are offended that $20 million has been spent on one member of a species that is not even listed as endangered.

Historically, Icelanders treat whales as food, not as celebrities, and fishermen have been accused of shooting orcas that attack their bulging nets.

A puffin hunter who lives on the cliffs above Keiko's pen expressed feelings about the 10,000-pound showman that would distress the children who sent their dollars to the Free Willy fund: "That's a lot of meatballs."

This summer was the crucial one. Keiko swam close by different pods for as long as three days and played a sort of tag with juveniles.

"But we didn't see social reactions, or foraging or feeding," Vinick said. "Sometimes pods were very interested in him, sometimes not, so we weren't able to say 'Let's stick with that pod.' That's discouraging."

At one point, right under his walk boat, he suddenly bellowed, scaring off 18 whales. No one knows why, Vinick said; he may have been defending his "pod."

To encourage hunting, he also once went without being fed for a week; he normally gets 100 pounds of fish a day. "There were brutal nights," Vinick said. "Lots of hunger behavior."

But never any signs, like deep dives, or birds diving for scraps, that he was catching his own fish.

Five-ton cocker spaniel

Although whales and dolphins have been released into the wild, "no scientific protocols exist" for doing it, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged by Congress with protecting wild ocean creatures.

The American and Russian navies have trained dolphins and whales to do everything from recovering missile parts to ramming enemy divers with exploding darts.

Some Navy dolphins have been let go, either officially or by animal rights activists, usually in the Caribbean. Some disappeared, some were later found dehydrated, begging from boats and Jet-Skiers, and had to be rescued.

In 1992, nine aquarium dolphins were released in Australia. Three, starving, had to be recaptured, one died and five vanished.

Richard O'Barry, who trained "Flipper" for the 1960s television show but has devoted the last 30 years as head of the Dolphin Project in Florida to freeing cetaceans, argues that the "Free Willy" project was doomed from the start.

"They're still training him," he said. "He's in captivity even when he's out at sea. He's psychologically dependent on his trainers."

That is obvious. Since the last orca pods left Icelandic waters in September, Keiko is back in his pen, which is the size of 20 soccer fields, doing leaps and tail lobs for exercise, swimming up like a shiny black-and-white maitre d' to jovially escort a visitor's boat in.

"He's a great whale," said Jim Horton, one of his handlers with long Sea World experience. "Not a mean bone in his body. Really intelligent, really likes to work with you. Some whales get aggressive, bite your flippers -- not him. Great personality."

For his summer walks, his trainers used fish as food to train him to follow the right boat and to return when an underwater tone sounded.

Once he had to be called back as he headed alone, seeming disoriented, toward the food-deficient deep ocean, and another time when he was in danger of stranding in a storm.

Each time, Vinick said, he raced back "really moving, happy to see his old buddies, and hungry -- he was doing his mouthing behavior."

An Outside magazine reporter, who followed his conditioning training in a boat, described Keiko as "a 5-ton cocker spaniel going to obedience school."

And there has always been talk of calling him back from freedom occasionally to attach suction-cup cameras or data recorders. Ocean Futures of Santa Barbara is controlled partly by Jean-Michel Cousteau who, like his late father, Jacques, makes documentaries.

O'Barry, now a consultant for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said that if he had been in charge he would have spent weeks or months observing Keiko, trying to see if there was a chance of his returning to the wild.

If so, he would have fed Keiko from behind a blind, then switched to live fish stunned to slow them down, and finally to live fish.

Since live fish die easily in transit, Vinick calls O'Barry's ideas "more practical on paper than in the North Atlantic."

Time running out

Kenneth Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., who has tracked Puget Sound orca pods since 1976, said he would have started long ago trying to find Keiko's family pod.

There are about 600 orcas near Iceland, he said, meaning "probably 30 to 40 matrilineal lines of DNA."

Since orcas gather behind trawlers to grab snacks when the nets are hauled in, it would be relatively easy to grab blubber samples with crossbow darts and match the DNA lines to Keiko's.

Orcas, like elephants, usually stay with matriarch-led pods for life.

Visiting oceanographers and biologists have taken about a dozen DNA samples, filmed many orcas and recorded many songs, but there is no systematic breakdown of the Icelandic pods as there is for the Puget Sound ones.

Keiko will probably have to move soon because a salmon farm, which produces lots of waste, is soon to encroach on his bay.

Ocean Futures has looked at bays in Ireland, Scotland and the Orkney Islands, but the most likely choices are two Icelandic towns that already offer whale-watching: Husavik, on the north coast, or Keflavik, near the national airport.

Keiko wouldn't be anticipating freedom, but at least he'd still be in the ocean.

"We have to make a decision quite soon," Vinick said. (Contra Costa Times, 25. November 2001)

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