September 10, 2001 11:00 pm

The great experiment is near an end. The multi-million dollar effort to return Keiko the killer whale to the wild has failed. The people who have valiantly been trying to get Keiko accustomed to life at sea now are looking for a permanent home for the orca.

Its sad to think that all the time and money that have gone into the Keiko experiment didnt result in an unqualified success. Everyone was pulling to Free Willy in his native waters with a native pod. What a success story that would have been. But the fact that Keiko refused to swim free and join a pod after more than 60 trips out of his pen this summer shouldnt come as a big surprise. Returning an animal to the wild from a life of confinement, feeding and attention may be an impossible task one that even good intentions cant overcome. Sadly, his capture and captivity eventually put him more in tune with humans than with whales.

That Keiko was moved out of the small pool at an amusement park in Mexico was a good thing. Kids all across the country saved their pennies to help free Keiko from his terrible existence as a performing whale. He was moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, where a larger pool meant he had more room to swim and still was able to interact with people. Anyone who saw him there knew he seemed content, though he certainly was not free. His arrival there was a joyous occasion; his departure was sad but filled with hope.

That Keiko was returned to his native waters in a pen in Klettsvik Bay in the Westman Islands, south Iceland, also seemed like a good thing. The experiment to eventually free Keiko was worth a shot, even if it was unlikely that the whale could be made wild again.

Now, the California-based Ocean Futures Society is looking for a permanent home for Keiko, as it is likely that he will never be free, said Hallur Hallsson, Icelandic spokesman for the society. We are looking for a permanent home for Keiko where he will be cared for into old age.

The society is looking at sites in north and south Iceland, as well as Ireland. For now, Keikos pen will remain in Klettsvik Bay, where plans for a salmon farm that could have caused him health problems have fallen through.

We can only hope that Keikos handlers find him a suitable home where he will be able to live out his days in comfort. The gentle giant deserves a special place, one where he can move about and still get a chance to interact with his adopted pod humans.