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Whale's fans say goodbye

Sunday, February 22, 2004

NEWPORT, Ore. -- Nearly 700 people, some wiping away tears, turned out to bid farewell to Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the popular "Free Willy" movies, and died overseas in December.

The crowd gathered Friday at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where he splashed his way into visitors' hearts from 1996 to 1998.

"Keiko was not one of our kind but nonetheless he was still one of us," Thomas Chatterton, a veterinary chaplain said during the service.

Officials at the aquarium organized the event in response to hundreds of e-mails, letters and phone calls from Keiko's fans, who sought closure.

At his memorial, songs were sung, poems read, candles lighted, exhibits of his life and journey unveiled. A fund drive has put in motion a commission for a bronze sculpture of the whale, which was captured as an infant near Iceland in 1979 for the aquarium trade.

Keiko gained fame in the "Free Willy" movie about a young boy who befriends a captive killer whale and coaxes him to jump over a sea park wall to freedom. Two sequels followed.

Keiko was brought to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996 after the popular films prompted a $20 million program to free him from a Mexico City amusement park, where he'd been found languishing in poor conditions.

From Oregon, Keiko was sent to Iceland, near where he was born, for preparation for his return to the wild. When he was released in 2002, he swam 870 miles to the waters near the Norwegian village of Halsa. Keiko died in Norway, probably of pneumonia, in December.

Keiko seemed to love people, who returned the sentiment.

On Friday, fans viewed footage of Keiko swimming free in the wild, part of a film being produced by the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and Portland singer-producer Theresa Demarest.

Former handlers talked of Keiko's gentleness and love of fun and games. A boy of perhaps six hugged a Keiko stuffed animal nearly half his own size.

Chatterton, the chaplain, said Keiko taught aquarium visitors about trust, patience and an unappreciated intelligence.

"Why should we care so much about a fish in times of poverty and homeless children?" he said. "Because he endeared himself to millions of people."

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