Dear Friends of Lolita,
From WTVJ-TV, Miami, Jeff Burnside's ECOWATCH:
Free Willy star almost free
There's a real-life drama playing out right now over the whale "Keiko," who starred in the movie Free Willy. As you know, researchers are trying to teach Keiko how to be a wild whale again. With just days to go before the wild whales leave for the year, Keiko is on the verge of deciding whether to join them for good. Keep tuned!
Clicking on the video feed at the WTVJ-TV web site (above) lets you see for yourself the first time that anyone has seen Keiko interacting with wild whales far away from human contact. They’re cavorting and chasing each other.
Keiko leaves for days at a time now ten days straight at one point. "So, first, he is initiating separation from us. Secondly, he is initiating contact with wild whales, not once in a while but regularly," said Charles Vinick of the Ocean Futures Society (www.oceanfutures.org
Since their interactions are almost all under water, scientists are using sophisticated hydrophones to record what Keiko and the wild whales are saying to each other. If only we knew what they were saying. Top scientists are trying, but each pod has its own distinct language. So Keiko sounds strange to them. But they've found a pod or two that sound nearly identical to Keiko. It may, may - be his original family.
When Keiko starred in the movie "Free Willy," kids around the world sent in donations. The movie producers and corporations gave millions. But the true "money angel" has been the family of Craig McCaw, the private Seattle billionaire who pioneered cell phones.
"So they've gone way beyond what anyone would have thought was possible and I think they'll make every effort to continue to do so. But this project is very expensive," said Vinick. Expensive may be an understatement. It’s been about $20 million so far to do something critics thought could never be done, and it’s on the verge of happening. “Yes, we are extremely pleased," said Vinick. Famed conservationist Jean Michel Cousteau leads the Keiko project and says it goes beyond just one whale. "There's a lot we're learning.
And hopefully what we're learning there will help any orca population or any whale population - particularly when it comes to communications and these sounds, which are so critical in their life," he said. But Keiko's window of opportunity is closing any day now. Because the wild whales leave Iceland before August ends. If Keiko chooses not to go right now, this week, his handlers will need to keep him until next summer. And that means money they don't have.
"So, to do this again next year we'll have to raise funds from the public, we'll have to have support from a wide variety of sources, rather than the rather limited sources we've had this season," said Cousteau. To fight the pressure they feel, scientists try to focus not on the human calendar but on the whale calendar. After 30 years of performing tricks in a tank, it takes time to learn how to be free again.