Reykjavik, Sept 13 AFP - A project to repatriate Keiko the killer whale, the lovable star of the Hollywood Free Willy movies, to his native Iceland waters one year ago has been a failure, a project spokesman admitted today.

Keiko, who was flown home to Iceland from Oregon almost exactly a year ago amid a huge media frenzy that garnered worldwide attention, has still not begun to swim in deep waters on his own and is incapable of hunting fish to feed himself.
He has remained in his special floating basin for the past year in the Klettsvik fjord, southeast of Reykjavik.

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A year ago, hopes were high that Keiko, who is 22 years old, would be reunited with his mother. Male killer whales can live up to around 30 years, while females can live to be up to 90 years old.

"His re-adaptation to natural, or wild sea life is a total failure," said Hallur Hallson, a spokesman for the Free Willy support group which has financed Keiko's care since his retirement from Hollywood in 1996.

In his new-found freedom, Keiko has never tried to eat live fish -- he requires 100kg a day -- or play with other whales.

"And when his underwater cage was damaged in a bad storm Saturday, he didn't make a move to escape," Hallson added.

Killer whales can only survive in groups, and Keiko, who has failed to adapt to his natural environment, would therefore not be able to survive on his own, according to experts.

Jack Foster, an American responsible for Keiko's care, claims not to be disappointed despite the project's failure.

"It's all only a question of money", countered Jon Gunnarson, the man who originally captured Keiko and was paid one third the sum now spent to keep Keiko alive each month.

"And I think it's repugnant to think that American children are breaking open their piggy-banks to finance the captivity of this warted and ailing animal, who is incapable of attacking a baby herring, and who will never ever make it to the deep sea again."
Stockholm, Sept 22 Reuters - Celebrity killer whale Keiko could be freed into the wild in mid-2000, according to the organisers of an campaign which returned him to his native Iceland exactly one year ago.

The five-tonne star of the first Free Willy movie was flown home from the United States and released into a floating pen in the remote Westman Islands as the first step to freedom.

He has been continually fed and monitored, at an estimated cost of $US2 million ($NZ3.85 million), while contact with humans has been reduced.

"Keiko has never been in better physical condition and we are hoping to release him into the wild next summer, probably in June," Hallur Hallsson of the Ocean Futures Society said.

"He is spending more and more time under the surface and we are limiting human contact as much as possible. He may miss it, but if he is to return to the wild he has to abandon our world.

Keiko will be taken out of his pen next spring for 'walks' around the islands, with his trainers following him in boats.

"We want to gradually introduce him back into the wild but the best thing would be if Keiko just swam off."
Hallsson said it was the first ever attempt to return a killer whale to the wild after years in captivity.

He was the star attraction at a Mexico City amusement park before rising to fame in 1993 in Free Willy, in which a boy befriends a killer whale in a theme park and helps him escape.

Hallsson said Keiko was doing better than expected but was still being fed daily with dead herring.

"Attempts to feed him live fish earlier this year failed but the scientists believe that once he is in the wild, Keiko's instincts will come back and he will hunt," Hallsson said.
But some scientists are not so optimistic.

Gisli Vikingsson, a biologist at Iceland's Marine Research Institute, said killer whales needed several years to learn survival skills within their own family groups.