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Friday, August 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some concerned that Keiko's a bit too 'free'

Seattle Times science reporter

The former handlers of Keiko are worried that the former captive whale and movie star may be disoriented and starving as he swims freely several hundred miles from his most recent home in Iceland.

In a four-page letter sent this week to federal marine officials, eight former staffers for the orca's rehabilitation effort said the world's most famous killer whale probably lacks the foraging and navigation skills to continue surviving in the North Atlantic. They also said the staff now overseeing him may lack the experience to assess his ability to thrive in the wild.

"The problem is if he goes out there and he can't fend for himself, he's going to gradually starve to death," Jeff Foster, Keiko's former trainer and an author of the letter, said yesterday in an interview. "That would be in my opinion very inhumane. I think it's too big a gamble to assume that he's doing well, especially when we don't know. Without that visual observation, it's so difficult to say what's happening with this animal."

Officials from Ocean Futures and the Humane Society of the United States said they too would like to make visual contact with Keiko but have been hampered by storms and the orca's distance from land.

But they said the authors of the letter ignore the progress Keiko made earlier this summer before he swam off to join other whales outside his pen in Klettsvik Bay.

"This summer he made some significant changes in the extent to which he was traveling with whales, navigating with whales," said Charles Vinick, executive vice president of Ocean Futures, Keiko's caretaker until the Humane Society took over funding and management of the project in June. "It was truly a different experience. So we have the benefit of having seen him this summer and having confidence accordingly. But I do not discount the levels of concern or anything of that nature. It's all appropriate. Everybody cares deeply about Keiko."

Vinick and Naomi Rose, Humane Society marine mammal scientist, said data from a satellite transmitter on the orca's dorsal fin show he is travelling long distances and diving routinely, indications that he is feeding. Keiko also appeared to have taken to eating wild food when seen diving with whales earlier this year, Rose said.

"If he wasn't feeding, then he was doing something very energy-intensive for no reason," she said.

Bob Ratliffe, top aide to Craig McCaw, who funded most of Keiko's salvation from a Mexico theme park after the whale starred in the 1993 movie "Free Willy," said he too is confident that the orca is eating. He said the former handlers' view, while well intended, might be clouded by a reluctance to let Keiko go.

"He may have done a better job of pulling away from them than they've done of pulling away from him," Ratliffe said.

The former handlers' letter of concern was sent Wednesday to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Marine Mammal Commission, which reviewed the protocols for how Keiko would be released. Gene Nitta, acting chief of the permits division for the NMFS Office of Protected Resources, declined to comment because he had not seen the letter.

Jeannie Drevenak, permits officer for the Marine Mammal Commission, said the commission will probably ask soon to be briefed on Keiko's status.

The letter, she said, "certainly raises valid concerns, concerns that we and others have raised in the past." Among them: concerns that Keiko cannot forage on his own or dive as deeply as other whales in the wild.

Keiko first left his current handlers to swim with other whales in early July, returning briefly to feed in the middle of the month. He was last seen up close at the end of the month, when stormy weather forced a Keiko Project sailboat with monitoring equipment back to port.

His handlers have twice tried to view him from the air, but without luck. His daily satellite transmissions showed he was 170 miles west of Norway, 250 miles north of the Shetland Islands and headed north, said Rose.

The project's failure to track Keiko is counter to the original reintroduction protocols, which called for direct monitoring for at least a month, the former handlers' letter said. Unless it can be proven that he is feeding, he should be found, fed and possibly recaptured, they said.

Rose said she has contacted Norwegian researchers about trying to locate him but there are no firm plans to do so.

"If you send a boat out, you're sending a boat into a very large section of ocean, and it's no guarantee you will get close enough for that kind of visual inspection," said Vinick. "But certainly every effort to do that is being evaluated, and we're trying to maximize the potential for success."

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