Lecture promises 'behind the headlines' look at Keiko the whale

Keiko the killer whale has been making headlines since the early 1990s, when he starred in the popular Free Willy movies. For a look behind the headlines at the effort to return Keiko to the wild, the public is invited to a talk at UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory by Charles Vinick, executive vice president of the Ocean Futures Society. Vinick directed the society's Keiko Project from 1999 to 2002 and is still involved as an adviser.

The lecture will take place at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center on Wednesday, February 19, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Admission is $6 for the general public and $4 for members of the Friends of Long Marine Lab. This lecture is best suited for ages 9 and up.

The Ocean Futures Society was responsible for Keiko during the three and a half years he spent in Iceland, living in a sea pen in Klettsvik Bay and periodically venturing into the open ocean. Vinick accompanied Keiko aboard the U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane that took the famous whale from the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon, to Iceland in 1998, two and a half years after he had been moved to Oregon from a Mexico City amusement park.

Vinick spent every summer in Iceland and made regular visits during the rest of the year. Summers were a time of peak activity, when Keiko spent increasing amounts of time in the open ocean, interacting with wild orcas. Vinick will discuss his experiences working with Keiko, the scientific work his organization has been able to accomplish, and the challenges of working on a project that has been the subject of such intense public interest and media attention.

"The media tends to need a controversy to make a good story, and a lot of times the controversy has overshadowed what Keiko himself has achieved," Vinick said.

In the summer of 2002, Keiko left Iceland on his own, traveling eastward across the North Atlantic for 30 days until he reached the coast of Norway. Management of the Keiko Project is now overseen by the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States, with the Ocean Futures Society serving an advisory role.

"Keiko has demonstrated that he has the capacity to travel over 1,000 miles in the open ocean and to sustain himself without being fed by humans," Vinick said. "When he arrived in Norway, the public and media attention was overwhelming. Children swam with him and people fed him. Media attention focused on his interest in people more than on what he had accomplished in his travel to Norway. That truly misses the point. Keiko has proven time and again that he is remarkably resilient and self-sufficient, and he tends to push the envelope beyond what people think he can do."

Nevertheless, Vinick said there are a number of challenges facing Keiko in the weeks and months ahead. Later this month, wild orcas are expected to arrive in Taknes Bay, Norway, where Keiko has been since December. Last summer, Keiko spent most of his time in the open ocean interacting with wild Icelandic orcas. No one knows whether that will happen with the new whales he will encounter in Norway, Vinick said.

More information about Keiko is available on the web site of the Ocean Futures Society at http://www.oceanfutures.org.

For reservations and information about Vinick's lecture and other events at the Seymour Center, call (831) 459-3800 or visit the center's web site at seymourcenter.ucsc.edu.