Keiko is a star who has pleased thousands. But after 19 years in captivity, this whale is getting out of show business and going home, reports CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone.
Keiko, the killer whale who soared to the sea in the Free Willy movie, took a real-life step toward freedom Wednesday when he was hoisted from his aquarium tank to be airlifted to a bay pen in Iceland.
On a signal from a handler, the 9,050-pound, droopy finned orca swam into a nearby holding tank and was fitted with a nylon sling that allowed him to be slowly lifted into a special transport tank on the back of a truck.
Hundreds of people lined the route from the Oregon Coast Aquarium to say goodbye to the whale before he is loaded aboard a Air Force C-17 transport plane for the eight-hour flight to his native Iceland. There, he will be placed in the football-field-sized bay pen that will serve as a sort of halfway house until is able to be released into the wild.
Fans came to the Oregon Coast Aquarium to say goodbye to Keiko before the whale who became famous in the movie Free Willy moved a step closer to freedom himself.
One visitor said:
"It's sad, but I think you know he's going back where he belongs, and I wish him a happy journey."
But not everyone wishes Keiko well. A death threat was received on Wednesday, as final preparations are made to return the whale to his native Icelandic waters.
Iceland's largest daily newspaper, Morgunbladid, received the letter, the fourth such threat since July. It said, in part, "We will stop at nothing to kill the whale, and it wouldn't be a bad thing if this happened during a live broadcast."
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Keiko's handlers say he's fit and ready for the long trip to Iceland, where he will be released into a huge sea pen. He can still be watched, but for the first time in 19 years, he will be in nature.
But Keiko's trip home will be more complicated than what happened in the movie. (Willy jumps a harbor breakwater and swims to freedom with the help of an ancient Haida Indian prayer and a boy named Jesse.)
Trainers say it will be months before they determine whether Keiko can ever be released into the open sea. He may never be ready.
Keiko was captured in 1979 off Iceland and has spent the past 19 years in concrete tanks. When fans of the 1992 movie Free Willy learned he was languishing in a cramped tank at an amusement part in Mexico City, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation arranged for him to come to Oregon for rehabilitation.
Trainers expect to spend two summers evaluating whether Keiko can make the transition to open sea living. If he can't, he'll live out his days in th 250-foot-long, 100-foot-wide sea pen.
To prepare Keiko for the flight, trainers reduced his daily fish intake from 145 to 30 pounds.
"It's a rare situation where you can be airsick and seasick at the same time," said Bob Ratliffe, executive vice president of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.
Keiko's hunger also was meant to ensure he would obey the hand signal to swim into his medical pool and be fitted into a nylon sling designed to hoist him into his transport box.
Many children who have fallen in love with Keiko chose to tell the whale goodbye via Internet.
"Yo Keiko," wrote Jill from Florida, who said her elementary school helped raise money to set him free. "I hope you like it in Iceland. I'm sure you'll see your family soon."
Jean-Michel Cousteau of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation says, "Suddenly, he's going to be in his original marine environment, listening to the ocean."
Some fear Keiko may get lonely out there. But in Iceland, Keiko will be near hundreds of other whales, some of them perhaps members of the family he was taken from 19 years ago.
©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report