clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tough-love time for killer whale Keiko
Trainers weaning 'Free Willy' star of human reliance

HEIMAEY, Iceland -- Steve Claussen stands braced on the sea pen walkway, documenting Keiko the killer whale's behavior as he frolics in the North Atlantic with his favorite blue ball.

But when Keiko swims up expectantly, hoping for some play time or a treat, Claussen makes a point of turning away, a pained look on his face.It's time for tough love for the star of the movie "Free Willy," returned with great fanfare seven months ago to the Icelandic waters where he was captured at the tender age of about 2.

His trainers' hope is that the 21-year-old whale eventually can be released back into the ocean -- something that never before has been attempted with a captive whale. But Keiko must first prove that "he's an independent dude," trainer Robin Friday says.

"For most animals, food is their primary reinforcement," Friday explains. "His is human attention. He's been so pampered."

Thus, new rules designed to diminish all unnecessary interaction: No eye contact unless Keiko is being asked to do something that furthers his development. No rubdowns or massages just out of affection. And soon, just dead fish piped into the water at mealtimes instead of hand-feedings.

"It's a transition for the staff as much as it is for Keiko," Friday says. "It's like preparing your child to go out on his own. You've got to cut the strings."

Despite all his months in a natural environment, Keiko still hasn't figured out how to feed himself.

He doesn't seem to have grasped the point of the salmon swimming in his sea pen, sheltered on three sides by spectacular 800-foot-high cliffs off the coast of the volcanic Westman Islands.

Jeff Foster, who shuttles back and forth from Oregon to supervise the project, optimistically notes that Keiko's lack of interest in the salmon may just be because he prefers herring.

But Friday spells out the more likely reason: Year after year of dependence on humans has blunted Keiko's natural instincts.

His comments are borne out by what happens moments later when trainer Karen McRea smacks the ocean surface just once with her hand. Keiko immediately pops his head above the water and rests it on a blue plastic raft, the better to be hand-fed frozen fish.

Next up on the path to independence will be graduating Keiko from the relatively small sea pen to a more free-ranging, netted-off area in Klettsvik Bay.

The bay pen will provide him with his first contact with the ocean floor and give him a better chance to try to build up the strength he would need to travel the more than 100 miles logged each day by his Icelandic brethren.

Already, Keiko is spending 25 percent more of his time underwater, which is what wild whales prefer, and his dives are deeper and stronger.

Events on the ocean side of his pen intrigue him, Foster notes, and he seems to have thrilled to the furious seas that come with Iceland's punishing winters.

"If we can get him socially integrated with other whales, he has a very good chance of making it on his own," Foster says. "But we want to take it slowly and carefully. The bottom line is what's best for Keiko."

After his starring role in the 1993 hit movie "Free Willy," Keiko languished in a Mexican aquarium for several years until American schoolchildren collected pennies to help save him.

Warner Bros. and cellular phone billionaire Craig McCaw contributed millions of dollars to take the whale to an Oregon tank to recuperate from lung infections and warty lesions. His trainers estimate he would have lived only another year in Mexico.

Friday speculates that should Keiko's progress in Iceland accelerate, he could be released into open waters in six months. But very real obstacles remain.

"We can only teach him so much," Friday acknowledges. "We can't teach him how to navigate. We can't teach him where the food sources are. Or the social behavior he would need to integrate with a (whale) pod."

Foster says that even if Keiko spends the rest of his days in his bay pen -- and male orcas can live anywhere from 40 to 60 years -- the experiment could never be deemed a failure.

Keiko is teaching scientists a lot, and the rest of the world perhaps even more.

An education center will be opened in Heimaey soon to tell his story -- and just maybe foment further interest in the oceans. And special reports for classrooms and a World Wide Web site maintained by the Ocean Futures Society, which is coordinating the Keiko project, further spread the word.

Most notably, his trainers say, Keiko is back where he belongs, in the very waters from which he was plucked almost two decades ago.

Gesturing to the rugged, soaring cliffs and pure, blue-green waters of the Westman Islands, Foster adds pointedly, "This beats a concrete pool."