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Keiko the killer whale, star of the Free Willy movies, has died in a Norwegian bay that he made his home after being released from a pen in Iceland about 18 months ago, his caretakers said over the weekend.

Keiko's apparent love of company -- and his popularity -- frustrated handlers' dreams that he would one day leave them in search of food on his own. Millions of dollars were spent trying to teach him to survive, but he didn't bond with other whales, apparently feared swimming under ice and died less than two years after he was freed.

"He spoke the language [of whales]but he just seemed to be confused," said Jeff Foster, whose Seattle-based group, Marine Research Consultants, oversaw Keiko's care in Iceland for three years before he was released in 2002.

Keiko's handlers noticed on Thursday he had become listless, and the 545-tonne orca died Friday afternoon despite veterinarians' efforts to save him.

"It was pretty sudden," said his animal-care specialist, Dane Richards. He said Keiko's handlers went out to check on him during a late afternoon blizzard and he was still alive. Two hours later, he had died.

Keiko, which means "Lucky One" in Japanese, was born in 1977 or 1978 off Iceland, and was caught for the aquarium industry in 1979.

Known for his distinctive, droopy dorsal fin, he gained fame as the star of Free Willy, in which a boy befriends a captive killer whale and coaxes him to jump over a sea-park wall to freedom. Two sequels featured animatronic models, film of wild orcas and leftover footage of Keiko.

The fame Keiko gained from the movies led to a $20-million (U.S.) drive to free him in real life after it was found he was languishing in poor conditions in a Mexico City amusement park. Prior to that, he spent a few years at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont. He was brought to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996, and two years later was flown to Iceland. Once there, handlers taught him to catch his own fish and interact with wild orca. He was finally released in mid-2002.

But after 25 years in captivity, Keiko appeared to prefer human companionship. He swam straight for Norway on a 1,400-kilometre trek and settled in near the small village of Halsa on Norway's west coast in August or September of 2002. He became so listless there that his team started feeding him up to 80 kilograms of fish a day. Hegot handouts until the day he died.

The friendly, eight-metre-long whale swam up to small boats, and seemed to welcome people to swim with him and even crawl up on his back. Keiko became so popular that authorities banned people from approaching him and toured schools asking people to stay away.

The popularity made training a struggle for his keepers, who had been trying to keep fans away in the hope that Keiko, feeling a need to socialize, would seek out wild killer whales. But people still came to see him, and Keiko seemed to like it.

"He was like the family dog; he wanted to be next to you," said Mark Collson, a board member for the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

In December, 2002, Keiko's caretakers led him to Taknes Bay, a clear, calm pocket of coastal water deep enough that it doesn't freeze in winter. The bay is along orca migration routes and is more remote -- something his handlers hoped would force Keiko to seek out his own kind.

Keepers fed him there, but he was free to roam, and often did at night. In February, he swam under ice for the first time, apparently panicked and hurt himself trying to break through.

Nick Braden, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, said veterinarians gave Keiko antibiotics after he showed signs of lethargy, but it wasn't apparent how sick he was.

"They really do die quickly and there was nothing we could do," he said. "It's a really sad moment for us, but we do believe we gave him a chance to be in the wild."

Foster said the orca's handlers in Norway might not have detected early signs of illness, but it would have been hard to prevent his rapid slide.

"I think he was just getting older," Foster said. "Even a subtle change can be devastating to one of these animals . . . when they get pneumonia or one of these viral diseases that are out there, they can go down pretty fast."

David Phillips, executive director of the San Francisco-based Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, said the whale would be buried either on land or sea, but caretakers would have to make arrangements with Norway's government.

"My preference would be to bury him on land . . . If you bury him on land, we could still recover his skeleton and that might have some value in a museum or something, but that is still being worked out," Phillips said.

In the meantime, Keiko's remains were covered with a tarp in the water of Taknes Bay.

Associated Press

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