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Saturday, December 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Keiko won hearts on screen, in real life

Seattle Times staff reporter

Keiko, the killer whale whose life was nearly as fantastic as the movie he starred in, died yesterday in a Norwegian fjord — still under the care of humans despite a multi-million-dollar effort to return him to the wild.

The animal, who became a worldwide celebrity after starring in 1993's "Free Willy," apparently succumbed to pneumonia, sickening quickly and beaching himself before he died, handlers said.

"He's been in very excellent health, so it was kind of a shock," said Dave Phillips of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation. "This is a very sad day for us."

At the age of 27, Keiko was the oldest male killer whale in captivity, Phillips said. In the wild, males live about 29 years, while females can live to 70.

"Free Willy" told the tale of a lonely boy who befriended a captive killer whale and set him free.

The 6-ton whale with the floppy dorsal fin inspired school children, animal-lovers — and one billionaire — to believe Hollywood endings might come true. At the same time, many critics scoffed at what they saw as a ridiculous quest and a waste of money.

Touched by the tale and the plight of Keiko, who was living in a decrepit Mexico theme park after he made the movie, Seattle communications magnate Craig McCaw tapped his personal fortune for roughly $20 million to build a facility at the aquarium in Newport, Ore., and finance the effort to rehabilitate the whale and return him to the wild.

Attendance at the small aquarium swelled, as people came from across the country to get a look at the famous whale. Under the care of a team of top marine biologists, the nasty skin infection that had plagued Keiko for several years cleared up, but after years of being fed by hand, the animal was slow to learn how to catch live fish.

In 1998, Keiko was airlifted to Iceland, where he had been captured in 1979. Installed in a net pen in a sheltered bay, Keiko got fishing lessons and daily workouts. Eventually, his handlers led him into open waters.

"We called it 'taking him for a walk,' " said Charles Vinick, who served as one of the leaders of the project. "He was robust and just going for it, every time."

Icelanders were not as enamored of the whale as Americans had been, with a poll showing only 30 percent were pleased with Keiko's arrival in the whaling nation. A Norwegian whaler, also a member of his country's parliament, said the animal should be ground into hamburger.

When his Icelandic pen was finally dismantled, Keiko left the sheltered waters and began swimming with other killer whales. In the summer of 2002, Keiko left Icelandic waters, traveling more than 1,000 miles to Norway. At least part of the six-week journey was made in the company of other whales, Vinick said.

He turned up in the village of Halsa, where he allowed people to pet him and even crawl on his back, reminiscent of the tricks he learned during his early captivity in Canada and Mexico.

Eventually, his handlers used boats to guide him to Taknes Bay, the isolated pocket of coastal water where he lived uncaged until his death. Four keepers tended to him, monitoring his health, leading him into open water and feeding him 100 pounds a day of dead herring.

"He was in the wild when he died," Vinick said. "He was free to come and go."

Vinick said he's convinced Keiko's death was natural. When the animal's breathing became labored Thursday, a local veterinarian was called in to observe Keiko, and a California veterinarian was called for a consultation.

It's common for sick animals to mask signs of illness until the very end, probably as a mechanism to prevent predators from targeting them.

Handlers had hoped Keiko would join up with wild whales again in January or February, when they migrate along the Norwegian coast.

As the first attempt to return a captive killer whale to the wild, the Keiko experience will undoubtedly color ongoing efforts by animal-rights activists to get Sea World and other amusement parks to "retire" some of their performing whales to the waters they were originally taken from.

But Phillips said the Keiko project shouldn't be viewed as a failure.

"Keiko was probably the hardest candidate of any captive orca in the world, because he was captured when he was only 2 years old, we didn't know exactly where his family was, and he had been in captivity for 20 years," he said. "There are a lot of other captive orcas who haven't been in captivity nearly as long, and for some of those, we know exactly where their families are."

The Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island, has been seeking a federal permit to return a killer whale named Lolita from the Miami Seaquarium to Puget Sound, where she was captured before the state outlawed the practice.

But even those most closely involved say it's not likely that Keiko's strange saga will ever be repeated.

"My heart would say: Sure, do it again," Vinick said. "But I don't know if there will ever be another opportunity to do it in this way, with the amount of resources to make it possible."

Vinick, who worked hands-on with Keiko for several years, said the whale had a strong personality.

"He exhibited a tremendous will to live and do everything," he said. "And he had so much awareness of his environment."

Vinick watched Keiko interacting with other whales in his native Icelandic habitat.

"Sure, the hope and the dream was that he would swim off with the wild whales, he'd mate, we'd all have that perfect picture in our minds," he said.

"In reality, he was not truly a wild whale. He was not truly a captive whale. He was somewhere in between."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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