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Thursday, September 10, 1998 Published at 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK


Back to the wild for Willy

Keiko is lifted from his tank at the start of the journey

Watch Keiko being released into his new home
In a Hollywood-style finish, Free Willy star Keiko returned home to the waters of Iceland on Thursday after 19 years in captivity and a career as a movie star.

Transported by plane and boat to a protected cove off Iceland's Westman Islands, the most famous killer whale in the world swam into his home waters to the cheers of his handlers.

A crowd of 200 journalists and 300 cheering spectators had waited patiently at an airport on Heimaey island in Iceland's Westman Islands as a United States Air Force plane landed after a nine hour non-stop flight from Newport, Oregon.

Following his arrival in Iceland, Keiko and his transport box were loaded onto a flatbed truck and were driven about three miles (five km) to a harbour.

There the container was transferred onto a barge and taken to a large, floating sea pen in the secluded Klettavik Bay that is to be the whale's new home.

The special floating pen has been created off the Westman Islands south-east of Reykjavik in which Keiko will gradually be introduced to his new ocean environment.

The move was made amid tight security following a death threat received on Wednesday against the whale.

The threat was received in a letter to Iceland's largest daily newspaper, Morgunbladid. "We will stop at nothing to kill the whale," it said.

It is the fourth in a series of such threats which began in July when an anonymous letter to a national newspaper vowed to poison the water in Keiko's pen.

News reports speculated that it could be linked to the rivalry between two coastal towns to house the celebrity whale.

Move carefully planned

On the big screen, Willy jumps a harbour breakwater and swims to freedom with only a boy named Jesse and an ancient Haida Indian prayer to help him.

But Keiko's own trip home has been much more complicated.

[ image: Keiko's diet was controlled before the move]
Keiko's diet was controlled before the move
The 6.3m long orca or killer whale was hoisted by crane into a specially designed water-filled box, and then driven by truck to the airport.

A cargo plane then flew him to his home waters off the coast of Iceland.

To prepare Keiko for the flight, his trainers reduced his daily diet of fish from 43.5kg to 13.5 kg in a bid to prevent him getting airsick.

The whale's hunger was also intended to ensure that when the time came to move him, he would obey the hand signal to swim into his medical pool where a nylon sling was ready hoist him into his transport box.

Experts say it will be months before they can determine whether Keiko can ever make the transition to open sea living, and warn that he may never be ready for the scale of freedom he achieved in the Free Willy movies.

If he cannot adapt, he will live out his days in the 75 metre by 30 metre sea pen.

Island awaits arrival

The island of Heimaey in the Westman cluster, has been preparing for the whale's arrival for several weeks.

[ image: The Free Willy Keiko foundation initiated the whale's freedom bid]
The Free Willy Keiko foundation initiated the whale's freedom bid
A truck loaded with 16 tonnes of water did a practice run from the airstrip to Klettavik bay, where the floating pen is located.

The object of the exercise was to simulate driving with the exact weight of Keiko and his tank before he is winched onto a barge and taken to the offshore pen.

"All the manoeuvres have been tried and tested and we're really just waiting now," said Gudjon Hjorleifsson, major of the Westman Islands.

The world's most famous marine mammal was captured in 1979 off the coast of Iceland and has spent 19 years in captivity.

He was the main attraction at an amusement park in Mexico City until he shot to fame in the 1992 film, Free Willy and its sequels.

A year later, after the worldwide success of the movie, an article in Life magazine drew attention to the whale's "unacceptable" living conditions in Mexico.

This led to the setting up of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation which now owns the whale and is footing the bill for his repatriation.

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