''Free Willy'' whale still not free -- The whale that played Willy remains captive at an amusement park in Mexico City

By Dana Kennedy
Updated May 20, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

At the end of the sleeper hit Free Willy, a once-captive killer whale, set free by a young boy who befriended him in his tiny tank at a seedy amusement park, hurtles triumphantly over a rocky seawall to rejoin his family in the Pacific. The movie grossed $78 million last summer and resulted in a half- million calls to an 800 number that appeared in the closing credits, asking for help in saving the world’s whales. *But despite a post-movie flurry of poignant news accounts about his plight, and an onslaught of would-be saviors (including Michael Jackson), the whale who played Willy, 15-year-old Keiko, has not been as lucky as his alter ego. The 21-foot, 31 2 -ton orca is still languishing in a small tank built for dolphins at southern Mexico City’s Reino Aventura amusement park, which has owned him for nine years.

Last week, a marine biologist flew to Mexico City to present a proposal to release him to the wild-but many worry that what worked for Willy might place Keiko in danger. Though one researcher admits that he overdramatized Keiko’s condition last year-saying he was near death-to publicize his case, Keiko is still in need of help. His tank is so shallow that he can barely leap out of the water during the shows he performs every weekend. His dorsal fin has collapsed-not uncommon among the world’s estimated 40 captive killer whales. Scientists are advising Reino Aventura on his veterinary care, but his bottom teeth are worn down from gnawing on the sides of his tank, and he has a chronic skin infection-a papilloma virus. Male whales in the wild typically live to the age of 30, but some researchers say Keiko will die within four years if he remains in captivity.

Sadly, given his condition, Keiko is now Hollywood’s biggest has-been. Filming of Free Willy 2 began late last month off Washington’s San Juan Islands, and while 14-year-old Jason James Richter returns as Jesse, Keiko will not reprise his role. The movie, about an oil spill that endangers Willy in the wild, will instead employ an animatronic whale (a device used at times in the original), some film that was cut from the first Willy, and footage of whales at sea.

It took less than two hours on screen to free Willy, but the battle to save Keiko has persisted since filming began in 1992 and is proving far more difficult. As environmentalists, marine biologists, his own trainers, and park management quarrel over the best way to help him, Keiko spends his nonperforming days floating on his back in his tank-barely the size of two hotel pools-in an eerily empty park bathed in a blanket of smog. He often maneuvers under a water hose so the spray hits the area on his tail that is affected by the virus.

”People are so busy taking care of their own agendas that no one’s taking care of the whale,” says Warner Bros.’ head of publicity, Rob Friedman, who has worked on behalf of the studio with each group. Warner Bros. says it has spent a half-million dollars for Keiko’s care. Of course, both Free Willy movies are Warner releases and the company has a vested interest in the whale. Says Friedman, ”We just want Keiko to win in the end.”

Those involved with Keiko’s welfare divide into two factions: the Alexandria, Va.-based Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, which represents the $600-million-per-year sea parks industry; and the animal rights-oriented Center for Whale Research in Washington State. The Alliance believes Keiko should be moved to a bigger tank at another seaquarium, preferably with a female whale and better medical attention. The Center wants to set him free, something never tried before with a killer whale after long- term captivity.

Last week, the Center’s Ken Balcomb, a marine biologist, went to Reino Aventura to present Keiko’s owners with a $3.8 million proposal to reunite Keiko with his family off Iceland, the pod from which he was captured when he was about 2 years old. ”It could be undoing some of the environmental destruction we have wrought on our world,” says Balcomb’s partner and half brother, Howard Garrett.

Too good to be true? Yes, says the Alliance’s spokesman and former president, Bob Jenkins, who believes a killer whale kept so long in captivity and tamed by humans may not be able to survive if returned to the ocean. ”You’d almost have to go through the same length of time to retrain them,” Jenkins says. ”Most likely he’d be ignored out there and be a rogue animal.”

Complicating the relocation plan is Keiko’s skin infection, first developed when he was at Marineland in Ontario, Canada, shortly after his capture more than 13 years ago. Researchers in Miami and Mexico are trying to ascertain whether the virus-while it is not life-threatening-is contagious. Until they do, seaquariums in the U.S. are wary of taking him.

Another difficulty is the friction between the Center and the director of Reino Aventura, Oscar Porter, who, as Keiko’s custodian, controls the whale’s fate. Balcomb insists that Porter approved the Center’s first proposal to liberate Keiko last year, then reneged under pressure from the Alliance. Porter denies the charge; Balcomb has threatened legal action against the Alliance if they try to stop his plan.

Those who care about Keiko are torn between the Alliance’s plan to improve his life in captivity and the Center’s desire to set him free. ”It’s our dream to see him released,” says Lauren Shuler-Donner, who produced Free Willy with her husband, director Richard Donner. ”He means a great deal to us. We just want to make sure it’s done right and that he’ll be safe.”

The Donners stay in frequent touch with Warner Bros., which has hired outside researchers to review all plans proposed for Keiko. ”Every time one group proposes a plan, someone from an opposing team comes out and slams it,” Shuler-Donner says.

From most accounts, it’s true that Keiko was neglected by his owners at Reino Aventura and has been lethargic and underweight. Though they knew Keiko would outgrow his tank, they refused to build him a bigger one-even when they set aside $6 million for the renovation of the rest of the park two years ago. They also failed to equip his tank with a proper filter or cooling system. Park spokeswoman Pinkye Morris says a new administration is trying to rectify previous neglect.

In January, Warner Bros. and Sea World split the cost for the rental and installation of a new cooling system, which has totaled $200,000 so far. Many park employees say it was the least the studio could do, after paying the park just $75,000 for five weeks of shooting and Keiko’s services.

Although Keiko’s owners, according to a park staffer, ”only see pesos when they look at Keiko, they don’t see a living, breathing whale,” some of his most loyal champions seem to be two of his trainers at Reino Aventura. Karla Corral, 22, and Claudia Galindo, 27, lack the formal education required of killer whale trainers in the U.S., but both women say they will risk their jobs if that’s what it takes to make sure Keiko is moved, at least to a bigger tank.

Corral hopes to follow Keiko if he goes to a U.S. aquarium. Like many park employees, she thinks of the gentle, charismatic Keiko as a member of the family and is dubious about the plan to release him into the wild. Corral and Galindo spend hours at the edge of Keiko’s tank, scratching his tough, rubbery skin and kissing his snout. In December, the park held the Mexico City premiere of Free Willy at Keiko’s tank, screening the film just above the pool where Galindo and Corral say he lolled back and watched himself along with the audience. ”I like to sit by the pool and tell him my problems,” Corral says. ”If you’re crying, it’s like he feels it. He’s better than a human friend.”

Keiko is probably lucky to have Corral and Galindo, especially given the lack of experience of some park trainers at Reino Aventura. One former assistant trainer was so inexperienced with whales that she ran up to Galindo one day, shouting in terror that ”part of Keiko had fallen off and was hanging ) in the water.” It turned out to be Keiko’s three-foot-long erection.

Another would-be rescuer was Michael Jackson, who wrote and performed Free Willy‘s closing theme and became interested in Keiko during the Mexico stop on his Dangerous tour. Morris says his handlers called last November with a plan to move Keiko to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., where Keiko would cavort in a specially built tank with a female. ”This lady called me every day,” says Morris. ”She would say, Michael wants to know, ‘How’s my whale?”’ But after Jackson, facing child molestation allegations, abruptly ended his world tour and flew to seclusion in Europe, he apparently lost interest.

Of all the plans for Keiko, the proposal to release him may be the most risky-but it’s still the happy ending that many would like.

According to Balcomb, Keiko would be brought to a fenced pen in the Bahamas in October, rehabilitated with good medical care, and retrained for life in the sea. Once the whale were deemed ready for reintroduction to the wild, Balcomb would sail from the Bahamas to Iceland with Keiko swimming behind the 92-foot sailing research vessel. That plan would put Keiko in Icelandic waters by July 1995.

Balcomb says that after studying killer whales for 19 years he is confident the plan would succeed. But first, the Center faces another obstacle: finding Keiko’s family. Researchers armed with DNA samples from Keiko must travel to Iceland and locate his pod, one of six that includes about 300 whales off the coast of Iceland. Scientists agree it may not be hard to match the tissue, but they’re unsure how Keiko’s family would receive him. Warner Bros.’ Friedman is wary of the plan. So is Karla Corral. ”They could just turn on him,” she worries. ”And we wouldn’t be there, we couldn’t go save him from a fight.”

Garrett disagrees. Whales, he argues, have brains three times the size of humans’, and have shown evidence of long, uncanny memories and deep-rooted family ties. He says they stay by their mothers’ sides for their entire lives. ”It’s crushing when you get reports of whales who have been captured,” says Garrett. ”The other whales follow for miles, making audible screaming sounds. Keiko won’t be attacked by the whales in his own family. From everything we know, we expect them to recognize him.”

No one knows if Keiko will get that storybook ending, but Claudia Galindo says, ”We’ve made a promise to him that he’ll get out of here. He’s not a sad, pathetic whale, but he still needs something better than this.”