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New Winter Home For 'Free Willie'

After a playful, 90-minute swim Thursday, Keiko the killer whale arrived at his new winter home in a remote Norwegian bay that his trainers hope will attract more wildlife and fewer people.

His keepers kept the move secret until the last minute, hoping to avoid the publicity that has surrounded the six-ton orca since he swam to a Norwegian fjord after being released off the coast of Iceland earlier this year.

Keiko swam alongside a blue boat stacked with boxes of frozen herring to Taknes Bay, where fishing grounds are rich and wild orcas are thought to be plentiful.

Occasionally darting beneath the boat, Keiko waved his distinctly curved dorsal fin, responded to hand signals from a trainer and snapped up fish that were thrown to him.

A handful of residents greeted him with a welcome sign and a painting of a killer whale, but the hordes of fans and media his trainers feared were absent.

"It's so great to be here," said Colin Baird, Keiko's trainer.

The star of the "Free Willy" films was released in his native waters off the coast of Iceland in July, after more than two decades in captivity. His awkward forays in the wild and lack of social skills among other orcas have caused his handlers to wonder if the people-loving cetacean will ever bond with his own kind.

The head of the Humane Society of the United States, Paul Irwin, who was on the boat, said the ultimate goal remains returning Keiko to the wild, but it's likely he'll seek the best of both worlds.

"He is at liberty to do as he chooses," Irwin said. "The most predictable future for Keiko is in fact for him to interact with wild orcas while continuing to maintain a way-station relationship with his handlers."

The September arrival of Keiko, whose name means "lucky one" in Japanese, was one of the biggest things to ever happen in Halsa, a village of about 1,800 people on the fjord that adopted the slogan: "Do like Keiko. Pick Halsa."

Hundreds of fans swam with him, petted him and climbed on his back until Norwegian authorities imposed a ban on approaching him. Even after that, Keiko came close to shore in response to an 8-year-old girl's harmonica serenade, mimicking a scene from one of his movies.

Baird and Norwegian fisheries officials spent weeks searching for a winter home for the orca before settling on Taknes Bay, which is six miles from Skaalvik fjord and still in Halsa - a village about 250 miles northwest of the capital, Oslo.

Baird said the new location is more remote and harder to reach and the water does not freeze in the winter, so they can lead Keiko out into the ocean to meet wild orcas that normally pass by in January.

To prepare for the move, the team brought in a large dock, place buoys to mark his area, find boats and repair an old house to use as a base.

Authorities in this Scandinavian nation of 4.5 million have endorsed the project, as long as Keiko, about 25 years old, is not penned in or captured, does not come in conflict with other maritime interests and is not commercially exploited.

Norway is the only country that allows commercial whale hunts, but only for minke whales. Killer whales are a protected species.