August 02, 2001 11:00 pm

The story of Keiko, the orca that was captured in 1979 near Iceland, is a story about how mankind is leaving a sad mark on the creatures that live on the planet. The eventual star of Free Willy was sold to Reino Aventura amusement park in 1985 for $350,000.

Between 1992 and 1995, Keiko became the star of a movie that ironically depicted the eventual release of a whale just like himself. After languishing in a Mexican park, Keiko was moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium with the idea of eventually freeing him.

Now after millions of dollars in relocation costs and millions more spent to feed, care and help the orca return to the wild, it appears that Keiko may never swim free. The whale, currently living in southern Iceland, is refusing to join one of the orca pods that run in the area where he has been penned. In only a few weeks, the pods will start to move out of the area. In August, a salmon farm is to be installed next to Keikos pen in Klettsvik Bay, posing a potential health hazard for Keiko.

Charles Vinick of Ocean Futures, the organization that is trying to get Keiko to return to the wild, says that Keiko dives below the boat that monitors his movements, acting like the humans are his pod. Keiko has swum with other orcas during sea trials.

According to Jeff Foster, director of operations and field research, it is possible that Keiko never will be free. That is unfortunate considering all the expense that has gone into the effort.

When humans attempt to take control of the lives of creatures, then we must accept the total responsibility for their health and welfare. That means we must make sure that they have a chance to live as normal of a life as possible. When Keiko was taken from the ocean 22 years ago, it is doubtful that anyone had any idea of how this would change the orcas life. Perhaps no one cared, being more concerned how much money they could make off the whale. And apparently no one cared what the emotional toll would be on this wild creature.

Even though the crew from Ocean Futures is working desperately to help free Keiko, it might take many more years and considerably more money. And Keiko may never be willing to leave the humans that he has bonded with.

If that occurs, then those who have made money off Keiko should be held responsible for making sure that Keiko is well cared for during the rest of his life. If this means that the Japanese, American and other governments should also take a financial role, then they should step forward and do so.

In the future we hope those who would harvest the worlds oceans of creatures to make a profit should be required to do so only if they will accept the ultimate responsibility of caring for these creatures for their entire lives.