The story below was taken from the
Times Globe, Thursday, June 18/98
Kieko plays with
co-stars Jason James Richter, left, and August Schellenberg in Willey
A cage partly designed by New Brunswick
companies leaves today to house the world-famous whale.
By AMY CAMERON
FREDERICTON - Today sets in motion years of
planning and preparation to free the world's most famous whale - Keiko of
Free Willy fame.
A plane carrying Keiko's halfway
home, a sea pen that will be used to reintroduce the orca whale to his native
waters, leaves Seattle today. It will touch down in Keiko's native Iceland,
bringing the fight to free the captive whale one step closer to its end.
The Icelandic government agreed to accept Keiko last
week and on Tuesday, after looking at a number of options, the Free Willy/Keiko
Foundation decided upon a small, sheltered bay called Klettsvik.
The large hour-glass shaped pen will be transported to
Vestmannaeyjar, a group of islands southeast of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik.
Once assembled, the cage will be placed in Klettsvik Bay, near the small town
of Heimay on the island of the same name.
The pen is
expected to take about eight weeks to assemble and test. And experts, including
the three New Brunswick companies involved in making the netting, tension
system and mooring system for the floating pen, will visit the Icelandic bay to
watch over the process.
"It helps us tremendously to
know where we are going," laughs Diane Hammond, spokeswoman for the Free
"He is really ready. We're not."
Keiko is learning to hunt, kill and eat live fish, work
that will continue after the whale arrives in Iceland in September. "We don't
really know if he had ever learned how to do this in the first place before he
was captured," Ms. Hammond said.
Captured off the coast
in Iceland in 1979 at about two years of age, Keiko has lived in captivity ever
since. He was originally bought by Marineland in Ontario but was sold to Reino
Adventure, a Mexican amusement park, in 1985.
Keiko was chosen for the role of Willy.
The plot of the
movie, Free Willy, was quite simple. After two hours of angst and
action, Willy the whale was freed from the clutches of evil aquarium owners out
to kill him for an insurance scam.
In reality, Keiko the
killer whale performed trained tricks and repeated the maneuvers time and time
again for a variety of camera angles. Feeding on dead fish and spending his
off-time in a small concrete pool, Keiko lost weight, became lethargic and
suffered from muscle atrophy due to the size of his pool.
The 21-year-old whale was bought by the foundation and
was moved to his current home at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon,
Two years later, after worldwide efforts and an
1-800 number that appeared at the end of the film, Keiko is once again ready to
be free. Really free, not just on-a-Hollywood-reel free.
However, as the players in this real story are preparing the first-ever release
of a captive orca whale, the ethics behind displaying animals in zoos and
aquariums and reintroducing them to the wild are being questioned.
"What's that saying? 'Truth is stranger than fiction,'
"Ms. Hammond says. "It's been a strange ride. We're a very peculiar mammal in
that we're apolitical. We are not taking a stand on captivity nor whether it is
right or wrong. And nor are we an animal rights group."
However the foundation, which is a private non-profit organization funded
primarily by the American telecommunication pioneer Craig McCaw, has been
hearing from just about everyone on the release of Keiko.
Animal rights groups believe that the foundation is
taking too long, says Ms. Hammond, and the captive care community is concerned
that this will set a dangerous precedent.
the book on this one," she continues. "No one has ever done this before but we
do feel pretty strongly that life for Keiko will be far richer in a natural