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Is the Free Willy whale now free

01:00 Mon 08th Apr 2002 |

A.� Keiko, the killer whale, is still resisting attempts to be introduced to fellow orcas in the wild. More than $15 million has been spent trying to coax the five-tonne hero of the 1993 hit movie, Free Willy, back his roots.

Conservationists have tried to take him back to the wild by escorting him through the north Atlantic with ships and helicopters, introducing him to pods of orcas and tracking his progress via satellite, but attempts have so far failed.

Q. Where is Keiko now

A.� For the past two years, he has been in the remote harbour of Klettsvik, in the Westman Islands off the coast of Iceland.

Q.� When was the film released

A.� Keiko shot to fame in 1993 when he appeared in the first Free Willy, about a disturbed boy who had formed a friendship with a killer whale facing death.� The movie was to have an enormous impact on the public's interest in the fate of whales and was described by Time magazine as a "movie that hits every emotional button with a firm fist". It led to a sequel in 1992 that was less successful: Free Willy 2.

Shortly after the second film was released by Warners Brothers, Keiko was discovered languishing in a tiny pool in a Mexico City amusement park. Stung by the public's criticisms, Warner arranged for him to transported to the United States and thereafter, on a US Air Force cargo plane, to iceland.

For the last two summers, conservationists from Ocean Futures have escorted him on trips to the ocean, allowing him to swim with other orca whales� - actually a species of dolphin - for the first time since he was captured at the age of two, 25 years ago, off the coast of Iceland.

The group is trying to increase his consumption of fresh herring, to wean him off the thawed frozen fish he once ate. Ocean Futures, a firm run by Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous diver Jacques Cousteau, say Keiko would have to be accepted by a pod of orcas to fully integrate back into the wild. No killer whale has successfully been reintroduced into the wild before.

The methods used to reintroduce Keiko to the wild have caused a split in the environmental world. Richard O'Barry, who once trained the 1960s celebrity dolphin Flipper, said the Icelandic project was only slightly different to Keiko's experience at the amusement park. He believes Keiko should be left alone and nature should be allowed to take its course.

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By Katharine MacColl

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