By Dana Kennedy
Updated January 19, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

IT’S 10:30 a.m. in Newport, Ore., and the cargo plane from Mexico City carrying Keiko, the 7,000-pound killer whale, will not arrive for another five hours. But outside the Oregon Coast Aquarium, standing in a rainstorm, is 3-year-old Tiffany Sevren and her parents, Joanna and Tony. In a rain hat and blue Disney poncho, oblivious to the storm, Tiffany points to the aquarium’s new 2-million-gallon tank and yells, ”Keiko’s coming!” ”She thinks this is a movie,” says Joanna, who explains that the little girl has seen both Free Willy and Free Willy 2 a dozen times. ”She can’t tell the difference.”

Seems as if few can. Last week, the long-suffering whale, who became a star in 1993’s Free Willy, departed his tiny tank at the Reino Aventura amusement park in Mexico City and landed on the Oregon coast to a hero’s welcome. Signs heralding Keiko’s arrival were posted all over Newport, as some 7,000 people came out to greet him. Meanwhile, inside the aquarium, more than 350 journalists from all over the world waited. His 111/2-hour journey, during which he languished in a canvas sling that was immersed in a claustrophobic container aboard the plane, was the ultimate fish-out-of-water story, a lot better than last year’s soggy sequel.

But Keiko’s saga is far from over. The goal of the Free Willy Foundation, which spearheaded the $9 million Keiko relocation project, is to eventually return the whale to the waters off Iceland where he was born about 18 years ago and captured 2 years later. To do that, however, Keiko must overcome serious health problems. He is a ton underweight with poor muscle tone, his teeth have been worn down by chewing on the sides of his undersize Mexico City tank, and he has that much-publicized skin infection that may have been exacerbated by his captivity.

Even if Keiko were healthy, some, including his two trainers from Reino Aventura — Karla Corral, 24, and Renata Fernandez, 25 — are not sure the orca could ever survive in the wild. ”He’s been hand-fed for years,” says Corral. ”He’s used to humans. We don’t know if he could adapt to the wild again.” Keiko has bonded so closely with his trainers that when the two women, who flew to Oregon on a chase plane accompanying Keiko’s, approached the whale during a stopover in Phoenix, he started to cry.

Keiko wasn’t wailing later that afternoon when he was hoisted into his new pool, which is nearly four times larger than his old one. Some experts feared he might be traumatized by his trip. But the orca dove into the cold water and began frolicking. ”That makes me feel great,” says Howard Garrett, of the Center for Whale Research. ”That gives me hope he might be releasable someday.”

Unlike Keiko’s trainers, Garrett and his partner, Kenneth Balcomb are more hopeful that Keiko can be set free. Balcomb has traveled to Iceland twice, most recently in November, to begin trying to locate Keiko’s pod among the approximately 600 killer whales swimming in Icelandic waters. Garrett hopes to deploy a satellite hookup to allow Keiko and his pod to use their distinctive set of calls to communicate. ”Whales have long memories,” says Garrett. ”Mothers stay with their children their whole lives. They take excellent care of one another.”