Keiko Swims Toward Freedom

Keiko, the killer whale who was the subject of Free Willy, entered the enclosed waters of a remote Icelandic bay Friday, to the delight of a nature group that's been preparing him for his return to the wild. Until Friday, Keiko had been living in a pen enclosed by nets in the bay.

The five-ton black and white orca will now be able to roam around an enclosed area of Klettsvik Bay in the Westman Islands off Iceland's south coast. The new area is 22 times larger than his current home. Keiko's new home allows him to experience an ocean environment for the first time since his capture off Iceland more than 20 years ago.

This new area will serve as a halfway house before he's released back into the sea, possibly by the summer. This is the first attempt ever to reintroduce a killer whale into the wild.

When the gate of the pen opened, Keiko peeked out rather bashfully before turning around and swimming back in.

But about 90 minutes later, with some coaxing by his trainers, he worked up the courage to start exploring his new surroundings. Accompanied by a trainer in a small boat, he swam in the bay, under a blue sky in bright winter sunshine, for about 20 minutes. Then he returned to his familiar surroundings.

"It's been just a terrific day. Everything that we had hoped would happen has actually occurred," said Charles Vinick, executive vice president of Ocean Futures, which is rehabilitating Keiko.

"He is really now getting familiar with the area," Vinick said.

Although there are plenty of flat fish and other marine creatures in the bay, Keiko, who is used to downing an 8-pound fish in one go, will still need food thrown to him.

Keiko "continues to increase and approximate natural feeding patterns and Keiko has gone from being completely dependent on hand-fed fish, to retrieving up to 50 percent of his own food," said Hallur Hallsson, the Icelandic spokesman for the Ocean Futures Society.

Keiko was captured off Iceland in 1979 at about the age of two, and was the star attraction at a Mexico City amusement park before rising to fame in the popular 1993 film in which a boy befriends a killer whale in a theme park and helps him escape.

His stardom drew attention to poor conditions in the park and triggered an international campaign to save him. In 1996 he was taken to an aquarium in Newport, Oregon, nursed back to health, and returned in a blaze of publicity to Iceland in 1998.

"Keiko captured the hearts and minds of millions of children around the world when they learned that Free Willy's happy Hollywood ending was fiction. They truly wanted Keiko to be free," said Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society.

Keiko's health will continue to be monitored by veterinary staff, and if all goes well, the animal's trainers hope to release him into the open sea to the wild by this summer.

The hope is that he will find his original pod, or group, o killer whales or at least one that will accept him.

Keiko fans can follow his progress on the Internet on Ocean Futures Society