Keiko the whale, the ailing star of the “Free Willy” movies, got a warm welcome Sunday as he journeyed to the new home built for him with $7 million in donations from around the world.
Thousands stood in the rain behind police barricades, chanting “Keiko, Keiko,” as the giant water-filled container approached the aquarium. Many held “We Love Keiko” signs.
United Parcel Service, touting its biggest delivery ever, had arranged for a chartered C-130 cargo plane to carry the whale. Because of the 42,000-pound cargo, the plane had to refuel in Monterrey, Mexico, and Phoenix.
People lined the highway to wave goodbye earlier Sunday as Keiko was hoisted into his container tank at the Reino Aventura amusement park in Mexico City, then driven by truck to the airport.
About 330 media representatives from around the world also came to Newport and watched as Keiko was lowered gently into the custom-built, 2-million-gallon tank where he will live at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Cheers went up from the crowd as the whale slapped his tail into the air and began swimming in circles in his more spacious new home.
Keiko’s veterinarian, Dr. Lanny Cornell, pronounced the 7,700-pound whale in great physical shape after his 20-hour odyssey.
“I was thrilled to see him swim off and start eating and squealing,” Cornell said. “He started eating within five minutes of being in the pool.”
Marlene and Roger Shipley brought their four children from Mill City, about 100 miles from Newport, to see the 7,000-pound film star.
“The kids have both movies and they watch them continuously,” Marlene Shipley said. “They talked their dad into bringing them down for this.”
The whale, which has performed for the past 10 years in a small tank at a Mexico City amusement park, made the 8-1/2-hour flight without any serious problems.
Though flabby from life in his small pool, Keiko is about 2,000 pounds underweight. He has a wart-like skin virus, a weakened immune system and digestive problems.
His teeth are bad from chewing on the sides of his pool.
His new owners hope to rehabilitate Keiko, who is about 16 or 17 years old, so he can someday be returned to the wild, just like the whale in the story of Willy. If that doesn’t happen, there is talk of finding him a mate.
Keiko’s new home is four times the size of his old one and is filled with cold, purified sea water instead of warm salinated freshwater. He has a concrete beach and an artificial reef, and will have a daily diet of 300 pounds of restaurant-quality fresh fish.
More than $7 million in private funds were raised for the project to move Keiko. But his benefactors will have to settle for just watching him: Keiko is giving no more performances.
Keiko was captured as a youngster off Iceland in 1979. He lived in an aquarium there until 1982, when he began performing at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Reino Aventura bought him in 1985.
Warner Bros. cast him to star in the first “Free Willy” film in 1992, and the success of the film focused attention on Keiko’s poor living conditions. Reino Aventura agreed to donate him to Earth Island Institute of San Francisco, which selected the aquarium for his new home.