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Friday, 3 March, 2000, 16:44 GMT
Keiko tastes freedom
Celebrity whale Keiko
Keiko flips his tail as he is released into his new home
Keiko, the killer whale star of the film Free Willy, is experiencing his first taste of freedom in a remote bay off Iceland

After two decades in captivity, the 23-year-old was freed from his pen and given a larger area of water to roam.

Keiko playing in his pen
Waiting for the big day: Keiko playing in his pen
With US Ambassador Barbara Griffiths in attendance, the gate of Keiko's pen was opened and he hesitantly peeked out before turning around and swimming back in.

It wasn't until 90 minutes later, with some coaxing by his trainers, that he'd worked up the courage to start exploring his new surroundings in Klettsvik Bay.

Accompanied by a trainer in a small boat, he swam in the bay for about 20 minutes before returning to his familiar surroundings.

The bay, which is cordoned off by a 280-metre net, will offer Keiko an area some 22 times larger than his current pen, which is about the size of a football pitch.

Learning process

Keiko will be able to enjoy a beach and a natural sea bottom with rocks, fish and other marine creatures for the first time since his return from North America to his native Iceland in 1998.

Keiko in Oregon
Keiko was moved from an aquarium in Oregon
While roaming the bay the killer whale will again learn to hunt live fish and get used to the marine environment.

"Keiko will be given plenty of time to adjust to the new circumstances," said Hallur Hallsson of Ocean Futures, which has been supervising efforts to release him.

The move to Klettsvik Bay in the Westman Islands, off the south coast of Iceland, is a halfway house before an attempt to return the five-tonne whale to the open sea later this year.

Film star

Keiko was captured off Iceland in 1979 when he was aged two and became the star attraction at a Mexico City amusement park.

He shot to fame in the 1993 film Free Willy, 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, where he was nursed back to health, and in 1998 he returned to Iceland in a blaze of publicity.

Jean-Michel Cousteau of Ocean Futures added: "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.

"Thanks to their outcry, Keiko is being given the opportunity to be a wild whale again. The access to the full bay marks another passage in this historic effort."

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See also:

02 Mar 00 |  Entertainment
Storm delays Keiko's move
17 Sep 99 |  Entertainment
Freedom beckons Willy
10 Sep 98 |  Entertainment
Back to the wild for Willy
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