NEWPORT, Ore. — It took the efforts of a Seattle billionaire, the United States Air Force and thousands of children around the world, but a 9,050-pound killer whale-turned-Hollywood star was hoisted onto a C-17 cargo jet Wednesday and flown one step closer to freedom in his native waters in Iceland.
Hundreds of onlookers lined the streets and cheered as Keiko, the 21-year-old orca whose appearance in the movie "Free Willy" inspired a worldwide movement to free him, headed for the airport to begin his journey toward a holding pen in a chilly Icelandic bay--and his eventual release into the North Atlantic.
The release effort, which touched off a controversy over the display of whales in aquariums, plays on an enduring Hollywood notion--going back to the days of "Born Free" and "Day of the Dolphin"--that a domesticated animal cannot only be returned to the wild, but can even retain lifelong bonds with the humans that cared for him.
"This is not only a Keiko story. Keiko is the locomotive of a movement, of an education, and we got that out of children," Jean-Michel Cousteau, a member of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, said of the campaign by children around the world who collected pennies to save Keiko after seeing the movie about a young boy who sets a captive whale free.
"The ones who are not allowed to vote yet have said we want Keiko to be rehabilitated, we want Keiko to be relocated, and we will do everything in our power to make it happen," said Cousteau, who is filming a documentary about the release.
"This is to tell the kids of the world that adults do keep their promises, and dreams do come true," added Bob Ratliffe, executive vice president of the foundation.
After an overnight flight to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, Keiko was to be loaded early this morning onto a barge and ferried to a small bay in the Westman Islands, where a large, open-netted holding pen has been constructed to reintroduce him to the Atlantic waters where he was first caught in a fishing net at the age of 2.
From there, handlers hope the whale will begin socializing with wild killer whales through the net, hone his fish-catching skills and, perhaps within a year or two, give the signal that he is ready for handlers to pull out the net and allow him to swim out of the bay.
The campaign has attracted criticism from captive whale specialists, who say Keiko's chances of surviving a transition to the brutally cold waters of the North Atlantic after two decades of captivity are slim. The whale would be better off remaining in captivity in the company of other orcas, they said.
Indeed, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation searched around the world in vain for a captive companion for Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where the largest tank ever built for a marine mammal was constructed to accommodate the lone whale.
"We've found because of the controversy, absolutely nobody is interested in helping," said foundation spokeswoman Diane Hammond.
Foundation leaders emphasize there will be no attempt to force the whale back into the wild before he is ready. Indeed, the team of handlers accompanying him to Iceland is prepared to remain over the next year, and Seattle cellular phone billionaire Craig McCaw--the chief donor in a worldwide fund-raising campaign that got a major assist from Warner Brothers studio--has assured there will be money available to care for Keiko for life if necessary. That could mean 40 years or more of captive care.
Handlers say they also are prepared to monitor Keiko with satellite tracking equipment after his release, allowing someone to be available at his old holding pen to feed him should he return.
"One of the things people find difficult to grasp is we don't really have a fixed outcome," Hammond said. "We don't need him to go off into the wild. We will make opportunities available to him. Can he echo-locate? Is he using his sonar? We'll let him pace the thing himself. If he's ready for something new, we'll do it. But if he basically stops at some point and he doesn't seem either able or interested in going forward, that's fine."
So far, $12 million has been spent on the effort to rehabilitate the whale, who was covered with sores, 2,000 pounds underweight and could barely hold his breath underwater for three minutes when he was moved from the Mexico City aquarium in 1996.
Since then, he has regained optimum size and can hold his breath for 18 minutes. More importantly, handlers say, he can fish for live food and has developed from a lethargic whale who immediately follows human commands to a sprightly animal with a mind of his own.
"Lately, it got to where if you asked him to do a forward jump, he'd do half a jump. It's just a matter of him very brightly, very cleverly seeing what he can get away with," said Stephen Claussen, one of the trainers who is accompanying the whale to Iceland for at least the next two years.