It's almost moving day for Keiko the killer whale - just four weeks until the most famous whale in the world ships out to Iceland. It's all part of the long process of trying to free the star of the Free Willy movies.
When Keiko came to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in the winter of 1996, he was a wreck - underweight, out of shape, and stressed out. Today, he's healthy, strong, and ready for his next step toward freedom. But is Newport ready to see him go?
All summer long, tourists from across the country have traveled to Newport, waiting in line at the aquarium to get their last look at this gentle giant.
Keiko's arrival from Mexico two and a half years ago was the biggest thing to ever hit Newport. The worldwide media attention put the tiny coastal town on the map. The world has watched as Keiko's trainers worked to get him back in shape and teach him how to cope with life in the wild. They even had to show him how to catch live fish.
If all goes well, Keiko's new home will be a giant pen on the south coast of Iceland: a netted enclosure in the ocean that will allow him to catch fish and socialize with dozens of whales nearby. Familiar friends (10 of Keiko's trainers) also will be there.
"I believe that when we first put him in that bay pen in Iceland, a whole new world is going to open up to him," says Nolan Harvey, Keiko's trainer.
But what about the world he leaves behind? Keiko has brought thousands more visitors to the Newport aquarium and added millions of dollars to the local economy. Downtown, stores sell all sorts of Keiko souvenirs. You'll find his image on everything from T-shirts to windsocks.
So what happens when your town has a whale of a tourist attraction, and then that whale leaves town? Will the tourists and their dollars disappear? The business people in Newport say they're not worried.
Gary Stevens is the owner of the Old Bayfront Bazaar:
"Newport's been a tourist area for many years," says Gary Stevens, owner of the Old Bayfront Bazaar. Keiko's been here for years, and Newport generally makes it through."
At Moe's restaurant, they're just as optimistic. After all, they've been serving up fish and chips and award-winning clam chowder for about 50 years now.
"We were here before Keiko, and I think everyone who has come because of Keiko is gonna come back," says restaurateur Gabrielle McEntee.
And even when Keiko's gone, he won't be forgotten. Which is why the local brewery plans to keep on making Keiko root beer.
"He's a famous citizen that used to live in the community," says Jack Leroy Joyce of the Oregon Brewing Company. "It's like Elvis in Memphis."
Newport aways has been a great little coastal town, a place to get away from it all. And, Mayor Mark Jones says life will go on after Keiko departs: "I think we will have a little bit of a slowdown in our economy, but we look for that to be pretty temporary because of the development of the other attractions we have."
One of those attractions is watching other whales - gray whales. Turns out Newport isn't a one-whale town after all.
In fact, some 600 whales live off-shore all summer long; hundreds more pass by during the migration season, and watching whales in the wild is turning into big business.
Clearly, Keiko has been very, very good for Newport, and he's been great for the town aquarium. But everyone in Newport, even those who may suffer a bit when he's gone, wish him well.
Phyllis Bell, president of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, says "He's a wonderful animal, and I know the people are going to miss him. But we all knew he'd only be here for a short stay, so we're looking forward to it and we wish him all the luck in the world."
When Keiko does leave, the Newport Aquarium will have an empty $7-million tank on its hands. A number of proposals are being considered. One idea is to turn it into a giant walk-through acrylic tunnel, to let visitors see firs-hand the coastal habitat.
Reported by Herb Weisbaum
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