The Price Of Freedom

Sometimes, life is stranger than fiction. And sometimes, it is far from that fairy tale Hollywood often creates.

In the movie Free Willy, the killer whale leaps to freedom over a harbor breakwater with the help of an ancient Haida Indian prayer and a young boy named Jesse.

For Keiko, the killer whale who played Willy, a real-life bid for freedom and a chance to rejoin his pod off Iceland is a lot more complicated.

On Wednesday, he will be lifted by a crane, driven by a United Parcel Service truck and flown by a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo plane from Charleston, S.C., before arriving Thursday in the Vestmann Islands off Iceland, where a floating sea pen as big as a football field awaits him.

Throughout the $2 million journey to Iceland, Keiko will be lying in a specially-built watertight box to keep him wet and comfortable.

"We've planned for every possible contingency: if somebody has a heart attack, if the whale doesn't feel good, or if we have to land in Toledo" says Jeff Foster, director of field operations and research for the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. "We have the world's attention. We're not taking any shortcuts."

Correspondent Lisa Balick of CBS affiliate KOIN-TV in Portland, Ore., reports from Haymae, Iceland, that Keiko may be on a ferry boat for the last part of his journey, from the main coast of Iceland, if the weather is too rough to fly him there. Balick says he would then be placed at the bottom of the ferry, among the passenger cars. His container would weigh roughly the equivalent of 12 cars.

All the preparations will be for naught, however, if Keiko doesn't follow the hand signal to swim into his medical pool for the crane hookup, so trainers have been working with him.

They've already switched him temporarily from feeding on live fish to dead fish so he won't be distracted any more than he already is. He's nearing the end of a sexually charged period equivalent to the rut for a bull elk.

"He's like a teen-age boy", Foster says. "His mind is in the gutter."

Keiko has sensed that something is up for some time. He has noticed handlers bleaching the medical pool and construction of special scaffolding where reporters and photographers will watch the start of his journey.

"He seems to know something's going on," says trainer Karen McRae. "I don't think he knows what."

Wednesday afternoon, a trainer will signal Keiko to swim into the medical pool. Handlers will lock watertight gates into place and drop the water level to 4 feet. Six trainers will get into the pool with Keiko and position the nylon stretcher. One will fit a strap under Keiko's chin and gently tow him into the stretcher, where he will roll around a little to get comfortable.

In the stretcher, Keiko will be weighed, both for his medical history and for the plane ride.

Then the crane will lift Keiko over the wall of his tank and lower him into the watrtight box, which measures 28 feet long, 8 feet wide and 9 feet high. The box is Fiberglas with a steel framework.

U.S. Highway 101 will be closed to traffic while Keiko is driven on the back of a flatbed truck to the local airport, where the box will be rolled into the C-17's 88-foot-long cargo bay. It has space for 102 troops and 170,000 pounds of cargo more than enough room to handle a 21-foot-long whale weighing 10,000 pounds.

The C-17 was chosen because it is the only plane in the world that can carry a payload like Keiko and land on a short, rough runway, like the one in the Vestmanns.

The box will have 18 inches of fresh water in it to keep Keiko wet until the C-17 reaches cruising altitude. Any more could create dangerous weight shifts during takeoff, despite built-in baffles to keep the water from splashing around too much. They can't use seawater, because the salt would cause corrosion in the plane.

Once the plane levels off, the trainers will pump in an extra 1,628 gallons of water from a separate tank to float Keiko just off the bottom of the tank.

During the eight-hour flight, trainers will rub diaper-rash lotion around Keiko's blow hole, on his back and his floppy dorsal fin to ease dryness.

The plane will be refueled twice in the air to avoid the stress of multiple takeoffs and landings.

After landing, Keiko will be trucked to the sea pen, where his training will resume.

His trainers will live in a youth hostel and have committed to staying with Keiko as long as he needs them, even if he is never ready for freedom.

"By the second summer, we should know whether he will be releasable or not," Foster says. "It's not as easy as jumping over the breakwater and swimming off."