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The Long Way Home

Keiko in trainingThis documentary was first broadcast on RTÉ Radio One, on January 5th, 2000 at 7:05pm.

The story of Keiko, star of FREE WILLY and his real life journey to freedom.

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This documentary tells the story of Keiko, the most famous Orca (killer whale) in the world. For 18 years this beautiful whale has languished in captivity, performing in one marine circus after another. Then Hollywood came along, made the movie FREE WILLY, the story of a young boy, a killer whale called "Willy", and the boy's dream to set him free. It was almost inevitable to those who saw the film, that this story would eventually become reality.

It was the perfect opportunity for conservationists to intervene. This wasn't just another dumb animal with no name, this was Willy, the movie star. So the Free Willy Foundation was set up, money was raised, governments were lobbied and the rest, as they say, is history. Willy, real name KEIKO ("the happy one"), was going home.

Home was the icy cold waters around Iceland. Icelanders are not noted for their kind treatment of whales. Ninety per cent of people there make their living from the sea and whaling is no long dead tradition. Many Icelanders still view whales as either a threat to the fishing industry or as a resource to be harvested. It's only recently that they've given up hunting whales in favour of watching them. In fact whale watching is now their fastest growing industry.

However, Keiko was not exactly welcomed with open arms. Letters were sent to newspapers in Iceland threatening to kill Keiko and arrests have been made. It's been said that if the Prime Minister of Iceland, David Oddsson, had not been so commited to this project, Keiko might still be stuck in the Mexico City amusement park doing turns for the punters.

All that aside and now that Keiko is in his holding pen in the Westman Islands, the question arises: is Keiko ready to be freed ? After 18 years of molly coddling, will he be able to look after himself in the wild ? Sure, there are no natural predators, but can he hunt for himself, socialise with other Orcas, join a family group, find a mate? Nobody knows; Keiko is the first whale of the 130 in captivity world wide ever to be released.

"This is truly a unique experiment and a greater adventure than the movie makers could ever have dreamt up", says Derek Mooney, Producer. " In a natural aquarium in a bay in the south west of Iceland, with only a bay net between the whale and the north Atlantic, thousands can come and see him and millions more can learn about his progress through the elctronic media. Keiko is the living symbol of hope and the trump card in the fight against water zoos".

In this documentary, The Long Way Home, Derek meets Keiko in his new home, sees how he's doing, interviews his keepers and their critics, assesses his chances of survivial and the impact all this is having on his Icelandic hosts.

There is an Irish dimension to this story. It was suggested that Keiko should come to the emerald isle. However, our Irish expertise on whales was found wanting. Not enough was known about the numbers and habits of whales off our coast. Perhaps next time. But would Fungi's nose be out of joint?

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