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Monday, May 15, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Banner is plea for orca's freedom

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's been 30 years since Corky was taken from her family in waters just north of Vancouver Island. So on a day most people reserve for their mothers, Paul Spong worked to reunite Corky with hers.

Walking the length of a banner stretching along Alki Beach, Spong spoke to bicyclists and passers-by about Corky, an orca whale native to the Pacific Northwest that has spent most of her 34 years in SeaWorld in San Diego.

Started in 1996, the banner was formed by pictures of whales and ocean scenes that schoolchildren from around the world painted on swatches of cloth.

Spong, a researcher at Orcalab, a whale study institute based on Hanson Island, B.C., said he hopes the banner moves people to push for Corky's release.

The banner has toured around the world and now consists of contributions from thousands of children from 21 countries.

When completely unfurled, it measures more than a mile in length.

"It's a beautiful piece of art," Spong said. "Each of the patches is a young person's view of the whale."

Corky's cause has been taken up by several nonprofit groups around the world who have moved the banner on its international tours.

In the Northwest, it has been championed by the Free Corky Project.

In a converted school bus with a rendition of Corky painted on the side, the group travels along the West Coast to tell Corky's story.

The banner is now on its second tour of Washington, having crossed the Northwest a year ago. This year, the banner has stopped in the San Juans and on Whidbey Island.

In June, the group plans to unfurl it at the state Capitol.

Corky was 4 years old when she was taken captive with other orcas off British Columbia. From that group, only Corky and a whale in Miami are still alive.

Although orcas can live up to 80 years, in captivity they usually have shorter life spans and are more susceptible to injuries, Spong said. Corky's health is not known, but she performs regularly at SeaWorld under the stage name Shamu.

Workers reached there yesterday confirmed that Corky is in San Diego, but they said no SeaWorld officials were available to comment about her condition.

Compassion is not the only reason to release Corky. Spong points to scientific benefits. Research shows that orcas are social animals that stay with their families throughout their lives, Spong said. The whales also communicate with each other, each group having distinct sounds.

If Corky were released, scientists could study her reintroduction to her whale group.

Spong said a transitional center could be established for Corky off Vancouver Island where scientists could acclimate her to ocean life.

Corky and her counterpart in Miami then would provide an opportunity to study how whales interact.

An attempt to release a captive orca back into the wild is not unprecedented. Keiko, an orca captured near Iceland in 1979 at about age 2, was moved from a Mexican aquarium to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in January 1996 and then to a bay in islands off Iceland's coast in September 1998.

By July, his keepers say they'll know if the star of the 1993 movie "Free Willy" can feed himself and swim fast enough to survive on his own.

If so, it will be the first time that a long-captive orca has returned to the ocean.

Frank Vinluan's phone message number is 206-464-2291.

His e-mail address is fvinluan@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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