Mark Berman is a program associate for the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute, and worked closely with David Phillips in the development of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.
The dream of returning the orca whale, Keiko, star of the Free Willy series of movies to his home waters has finally been realized. Keiko is safely home in his native Icelandic waters. Nearly five years have passed since Keiko first captured the world's attention while still captive in Mexico City. A year later Earth Island Institute created the Free Willy Keiko Foundation with the mission of the rescue, rehabilitation, and potential release of Keiko and other marine mammals. More than two years of rehabilitation at his specially built facility in Newport, Oregon, brought him back to full health and 2000 pounds heavier. That set the stage for September 10, 1998, a day that will be remembered as the first time a captive orca whale has been returned to its native habitat.
Keiko was warmly received by the Westman Islands community of over 4,000 children and adults alike waving signs and banners, and sporting t-shirts: "Velkommen Keiko". The schools even gave the entire student community the day off for this wonderful celebration.
I had the very fortunate and exciting opportunity to witness Keiko as he was lowered into the pristine Icelandic ocean waters of his pen. The emotional feelings for me were beyond description as Keiko, for the first time since he was two years old, felt his native waters and immediately slapped the surface with his tail fluke. Keiko then dove and swam several laps around the entire pen reveling in his new found freedom. He then quickly began accepting his normal feeding routine.
Only two hours after his arrival, Keiko had an interaction with a wild cetacean, a pilot whale who visited his sea pen. Keiko's vocalizations intensified as he and the pilot whale checked each other out. Keiko has been vocalizing more than at any time in his past 19 years of captivity. Since that first encounter, Keiko has had encounters with harbor porpoise, and a minke whale. These have been captured on real time 24 dg hydrophone recordings.
Keiko's vets have been extremely pleased by his level of activity and interest in exploring his new surroundings. The sea pen site is rimmed by breathtaking cliffs which are the homes to millions of puffins and other sea birds. The pen allows for a variety of fish and other marine life to swim with Keiko. In fact, Keiko has already begun chasing and catching live fish such as capelin and herring that swim into his pen.
Keiko's return to Iceland continues the amazing story. The next year will provide crucial information as to whether Keiko can be successfully integrated back into the wild orca population. His arrival is also spurring a dramatic increase in scientific research on wild orcas and the Icelandic marine environment.
Further, the public education value for whale conservation is just beginning to take hold. It was gratifying to hear so many people in Iceland talking about excitement in welcoming Keiko back. There is little doubt that it will lead to a new understanding in Iceland of the value of watching whales, studying them, and protecting them. Doing the right thing for Keiko is already helping the world's whales through raising public awareness regarding the plight of those in the wild and held captive, and what better legacy could have come from Free Willy.
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