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Movie Star Whale Makes Big Splash in New Home

January 9, 1996

NEWPORT, Ore. (AP) _ Hundreds of fans flocked to see Keiko, the orca whale star of the ``Free Willy″ movies, in his first day on public display Monday at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

There are no plans to create stadium-like seating around Keiko’s 2-million-gallon rehabilitation tank, and backers of the 19 1/2-hour trip from a Mexican amusement park are adamant that Keiko will no longer perform. But that didn’t seem to bother the whale’s fans.

``I think the public is ready to experience orca whales in a different way. They don’t have to jump through hoops or have trainers ride on their backs. This is a more natural setting,″ said Dave Phillips, president of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation.

More than 400 people lined up before the aquarium opened and then jammed into the underwater observation area. Excited children pressed against the glass and shouted as the 7,700-pound whale glided by. One middle-aged woman appeared in awe: ``Oh, he’s beautiful.″

The goal is to return Keiko, believed to be 16 or 17 years old, to the pod of whales he was captured from off Iceland, but adapting to the wild may be difficult since he’s been in captivity nearly his entire life.

After 10 years spent performing for its food in a small tank at a Mexico City amusement park, Keiko is about 2,000 pounds underweight, has a wart-like skin virus, a weakened immune system, digestive problems and bad teeth.

But aquarium officials said he was adjusting well to his new home, which is four times bigger and filled with cold, purified sea water instead of warm salinated fresh water. The pool also has an artificial reef.

Visitors voiced support for the less invasive setting.

``I don’t want to see him do tricks,″ said Lana Elmore, 47, of Newport. ``If having people view him from a window will help him get healthy, that’s fine. I want freedom for him.″

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