Born to be wild?
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Keiko is lowered into his holding pen in the Westman Islands, touching the Atlantic Ocean waters for the first time in nearly 20 years. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Lono Kollars. Courtesy U.S. Air Force.

Learning to be wild

Free Willy

The lost language of cranes

Golden lion tamarins

this thing weighs at least a ton

Keiko is lifted from his pen at the Oregon aquarium, the first step on his journey to Iceland. Photo by Master Sgt. Dave Nolan. Courtesy U.S. Air Force.

Willy or won't he?
don't fence me in After spending 19 years in pens in Mexico City, Oregon and elsewhere, Keiko, the telegenic star of Free Willy has flown home. Home, to this killer whale, is the waters off Iceland, where he was released Sept. 10. Now he's swimming inside a big, netted pen while his handlers decide whether he's fit for release into the deep blue.

Keiko is a killer whale. These intelligent and extremely social marine mammals are also called orcas. Heavy-duty carnivores, they are big and powerful, and eat fish, seals and birds. Males can grow up to nine tons, and females can live up to 80 years. Although found in all oceans, they are not very numerous. Here's more on orcas.

So far, Keiko's release seems to be progressing smoothly, as the liberated mammal has begun eating, exploring, and cruising around a tidal pool on the Westman Islands of Iceland.

But Keiko's long-term prospects are far from certain. The Free Willy (Keiko) Foundation would prefer to return him to freedom after about a year of observation, but vows it will maintain him in the pen for the rest of his life if it can't be sure that he'll prosper in the great blue sea. The expensive project has been funded by donations, including some from Warner Brothers, which made the movie Free Willy.

Although the Free Willy project has gotten high marks for doing it right, there are no guarantees when it comes to restoring orcas to their native habitat. Although a few bottlenose dolphins have been released -- with varying results -- nobody has returned a killer whale to the wild.

Gettin' grits
The two major areas of concern seem to be feeding and social structure. Even though Keiko was two when he was captured, "he missed out on a lot of learning -- where is the good food, what are the good hunting techniques, who is a friend, who is not so friendly," says Naomi Rose, the marine mammal scientist at the American Humane Society. Yet feeding may not be a big obstacle, since there are already hopeful signs that Keiko is learning to gobble the foolish fish that swim through the netting of his pen.

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Keiko in his new home. ©1998, AP photographer Dan Ryan. Used with permission from the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.

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can't beat the rentBut even if Keiko learns to tell a lungfish from a sea lamprey, he'll need to overcome another challenge -- finding a place for himself in killer whale society. "Killer whales represent one extreme [in the larger family of whales and dolphins]," observes John Calambokidis, an adjunct faculty member at Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash., "with a complex, family-oriented structure." The key question, he says, is "Can they re-establish their place in this very long-term social structure from which they were removed?"

Rose, who studied orcas for five years in the Pacific Northwest, says, "The bonds are for a lifetime, particularly for the males. They never leave their mother, remain by her side for an entire lifetime." The relationship is so "incredibly powerful," she says, that some males have died after mom kicked the bucket. However, others note that in some killer whale populations, males do leave mom to form new pods, as orca groups are called.

A loyal son?
Behavior that sounds like the ultimate in filial piety may actually be an evolutionary response to finding a mate, Rose adds. "The main advantage is that the females are very gregarious, they hang around with friends in coffee klatches, and if the sons are there, they end up meeting females with whom they can mate. It's an automatic introduction service."

Mothers have also been observed disciplining errant youths with a mighty slap of the tail flukes, she adds. And when daughters move off to have their own families, they remain near mom, and can be recognized as members of the same "clan" by their vocalizations.

In the face of such an intense family structure, what the local orcas think of Keiko matters. Although there's no way of predicting their reaction, Rose suspects that his family may remember the little cub that was removed so long ago, if only from his utterances. "He sounds like them -- he might have forgotten some of the dialect, but he's one of them."

But even if they do remember Keiko, it's uncertain what will happen next. Humans, she points out, are used to old acquaintances or relations who return after long absences, but not orcas. "They don't know from killer whales dropping out of the sky. Everybody they know, they've known all their lives." Thus the family may welcome him back, ignore him as too weird, or even chase him away.

One whale, two opinions
Rod Palm, principal investigator at the Strawberry Isle Research Society, a marine research organization in British Columbia, Canada, is more optimistic about the social question. "Killer whales in our waters readily accept the company of others of like culture, so I don't think there will be any problem with Keiko hooking up with the killer whales of Iceland."

But since Icelandic orca "culture" has not been studied extensively, unlike the Pacific Northwest, they best way to resolve the dispute is to stand back and wait for reality to overtake prognostication. In any case, the prodigious memory of the orca almost guarantees surprising results in the expensive effort to convert Keiko from a star of the silver screen to a star of the silver sea.

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©1998, Free Willy Keiko Foundation.

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see ya laterThe Orca's ascension to mythological status adds to the urgency of the reintroduction. Robert Otis, a psychology professor at Ripon College (who has had the good sense to observe killer whales for nine summers in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, says, "I've been quite interested in what might be called the 'mythology' that accompanies the orca. Many people will comment on the 'high intelligence' of this animal but rarely provide substantive empirical evidence to support this idea."

The orca, he adds, "represents something more than a nice animal in the water" So what's it got that herring gulls and cod don't? "I get the same answer from kindergarten students and Ph.D. candidates," he says. "It's large, mysterious, and beautiful."

Large. Mysterious. Beautiful. Sounds like a perfect description of the whooping crane. What's up with the effort to restore this highly endangered species of waterbird?

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©1998, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.