"Free Willy" star set to spend winter in Norway
The people-loving orca has made a splash with the locals since he showed up in western Norway two weeks ago - even letting children ride on his back. But experts say that what he really needs is some killer whale company.
"We would like to find a cosy spot for him, preferably a peaceful place where we can be around and where he can also be in contact with other killer whales - so that he gets the best of both worlds," Colin Baird told Reuters.
He said Keiko's monitoring team, which has tracked him since he was released from his pen in Iceland in July, regarded Norway as a "transit" before the 24-year-old animal is fully ready for the wild. And several fjords in Norway were suitable, he said.
Millions of dollars have been spent on preparing Keiko for the wild after the 1993 movie "Free Willy" prompted a campaign for his release. But Keiko, who has lived almost all his life in captivity, still seems to prefer human company to whales.
"We don't expect Keiko to join a group of killer whales, but we hope he can find a group just to socialise a little, hang out and play around with - and maybe even mate," Baird said.
Groups of killer whales travel up and down the coast off Norway, which has plenty of herring. But the food situation as well as the weather would be better for Keiko in the spring, when the winter storms ease and the herring spawn.
Keiko swam some 1,400 km (870 miles) from Iceland by chance to the only nation in the world that hunts whales commercially. Norway, defying a global memorandum, hunts the minke whale.
But the playful orca has managed to charm Norwegians, who have flooded him with offers for new retirement homes in fjords - which attract thousands of tourists every year.
"Do like Keiko. Pick Halsa," reads the new slogan of Halsa local municipality, the home of the Skaalvik fjord, Keiko's current home.
"The world's most famous whale in the world's most famous fjord," declared the tourist chief of the famous Geiranger fjord in western Norway, a rival winter home for Keiko.
The leader of the U.S.-based Free Willy Foundation is due to arrive in Norway this week for talks with Norwegian authorities on Keiko's future.