USA: Free Willy struggles for freedom

4th Jul 2002 Story:

Being held in captivity for 23 years made it clear that it is very, very difficult for the whale, whose name is Keiko, to be reintroduced into the wild, according to one of the whales handlers, Charles Vinick of Ocean Future, a nonprofit marine advocacy organization.

Keiko was first captured in 1979, at the age of 2 in the frigid waters surrounding Iceland. After performing in amusement parks in Mexico for 18 years, he became very ill because of polluted water and high temperatures in his tank, which sometimes rose as high as 80 degrees.

In 1993 Keiko starred in the hit movie “Free Willy, which helped increase sympathy around the world for killer whales in captivity. Whale advocacy groups pressed for his release, and in 1997 Keiko was transferred to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore., to be rehabilitated. He suffered from malnutrition and weighed only 7,720 pounds, which was 2,000 pounds underweight.

He was put in clean tank that was properly cooled. He was fed a wider variety of fish and soon he was no longer suffering from malnutrition.

The trainers led him through various exercises that forced him to do a lot of swimming to increase his circulation and build his muscles.

To prepare his mind for the wild, where there would be fish, rocks and other critters not generally found in tanks, the trainers brought him stimulants that would keep his mind active. For example, they gave him special toys and even played action movies for him, such as “Independence Day. “He responded to those [stimulants] because they were interesting, Vinick said. “He was very curious.

The exercises allowed Keiko to regain his strength and become better prepared for the wild.

Going Home

After more than two years of treatment at the Oregon Aquarium, Keiko was sent back to Iceland. In each of the past two summers, Keiko's keepers have taken him to the Atlantic Ocean and set him free, monitoring him via a radio signal.

But each time, Keiko has returned to the keepers. He has interacted with pods, but he doesn't hunt with them and hasn't stayed with them for more than six days. But to survive, he needs to be accepted by a pod so that he can hunt schools of herring with them to get enough food

During the winter, he has been kept within the bays off the southeastern part of Iceland, which have over one million square feet for him to swim in. Berman said it is a “semi-wildEenvironment with no concrete barriers.

Keiko is in “excellent health, Vinick said. He is able to stay submerged for 20 minutes now 18 more than when he first arrived in Oregon. Wild orcas stay submerged in the sea for as long as half an hour.

The biologists still feed him dead fish to make sure he's getting enough to eat, but he has been trained to capture and eat live fish, said Mark Berman of Earth Island Institute. Overall, Keiko is doing well, Berman said.

Ongoing Obstacles

The only ongoing challenge is, “Can he be accepted by a pod? Vinick said. Learning to become wild is a gradual process, he said, in which “slow, small steps must be taken. A good sign, though, is that Keiko has swum over 2,000 miles in the open sea, a feat never accomplished by a whale previously kept in captivity.

Recent studies have shown that the whales Keiko has been swimming with in Iceland are his distant cousins. Rus Hoelzel, a geneticist from Durham University in England, compared the genetic properties of tissue samples collected in biopsies of Keiko and other killer whales in Iceland from 1999-2001. The genetic connection is very “positive news because it means Keiko's family has been found, Vinick said.

Many other whales held in captivity have failed to get as close to freedom as this movie star has gotten. Other whales have simply been kept in captivity, a situation that Berman considers a “one-way ticket to death. “None of these whales should be in this situation, he said. “Other w

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