KLETTSVIK BAY, VESTMANNAEYJAR, Iceland, March 3 PRNewswire/ — Keiko, the killer whale star of the hit film Free Willy, made critical progress toward his potential reintroduction to the wild today when the gate between the floating bay pen, his home for the past 18 months, and the larger enclosed Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland was opened. For the most famous whale in the world, this move marks a major milestone, allowing Keiko to fully experience the natural ocean environment for the first time since his capture in Icelandic waters more than 20 years ago.
“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 Ocean Futures Society President Jean-Michel Cousteau. “Thanks to their outcry, Keiko is being given the opportunity to be a wild whale again.”
Ocean Futures, a nonprofit marine conservation and education organization, is responsible for Keiko’s care and has been supervising preparations for Keiko’s potential reintroduction to the wild, a process that began in 1996. Keiko’s access to the full bay marks another passage in this historic effort.
Starting this week, the public can track Keiko’s progress through visuals, audio dispatches and email updates from Iceland, by logging on to Ocean Futures’ web site at ww.oceanfutures.org. In addition, people of all ages are invited to join Ocean Futures online — membership in Ocean Futures is free and open to all.
Today, Keiko has access to Klettsvik Bay, a body of water roughly the size of 20 soccer fields and enclosed by a specially fabricated barrier net. 260 meters long and 33 feet deep, the net is anchored in place with more than 128,000 pounds of chain, several ten-ton anchors and rock bolts drilled into the bay’s cliff walls.
Killer whales — or Orcas as they are more correctly known — are widely considered to be among the most intelligent marine mammals. This is the first attempt to reintroduce a captive orca to the wild. Reintroduction efforts for Keiko began following a massive outpouring of public support for the beleaguered Free Willy star after it was discovered that the real-life whale was languishing in poor health and inadequate conditions in a Mexico aquarium.More than 1.2 million individuals — mostly children — sent letters, emails, drawings and donations on Keiko’s behalf.
“While Keiko’s reintroduction is a labor of the heart, the process we are following is one of sound science,” added Cousteau. “Through our efforts with this project, we hope to increase our understanding of orca social behavior.Meanwhile, Keiko must continue to develop the stamina, foraging skills, and instincts of a wild whale.”
Keiko is also continuing to increase and approximate natural feeding patterns. Keiko has gone from being completely dependent on dead fish hand- fed at the surface, to retrieving up to 50% of his own food. While in the larger bay, Keiko’s health, which has been excellent, will continue to be monitored by veterinary staff on a regular basis.Should Keiko’s progress continue as it has throughout his stay in Iceland and the needs of regulatory agencies be satisfied, our objectives are to further prepare him for access to the open ocean.
“Keiko’s ultimate reintroduction to the wild depends on many unknowns,” added Cousteau, “but Keiko has successfully met every challenge that he has faced.”
Ocean Futures provides the global community with a forum for exploring issues affecting the ocean. Through research and education efforts, Ocean Futures addresses the following critical marine issues: Protecting and Understanding Marine Mammals, Protecting and Improving Water Quality, Protecting and Preserving Coral Reefs, Protecting and Restoring Coastal Habitats, and Fisheries Management. Ocean Futures is a non-profit organization that is the result of the merger of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute. Ocean Futures is located at 325 Chapala Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101. Phone: (805) 899-8899.