OSLO, Norway - For kids, Keiko the killer whale was the charming hero of "Free Willy." For biologists, he was the focus of fierce debate on whether captive animals could be returned to the wild.
Keiko, who died of pneumonia this week, never strayed far from humans, keeping company with them in a Norwegian fjord to the end.
Keiko's apparent love of human 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 six-ton orca died Friday afternoon despite veterinarians' efforts to save him.
"It was pretty sudden," his animal care specialist, Dane Richards, told The Associated Press. 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 the 1993 film "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, according to the president of the Oregon aquarium where he lived from 1996-1998.
The fame Keiko gained from the movies led to a $20 million drive to free him in real life after it was found he was languishing in poor conditions in a Mexico City amusement park. 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.
David Phillips, executive director of the San Francisco-based Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, said Keiko's plight changed public perception of whether a whale could be returned to the wild.
"We took the hardest candidate and took him from near death in Mexico to swimming with wild whales in Norway," he said. "Keiko proved a lot of naysayers wrong and that this can work and that is a very powerful thing."
But after 25 years in captivity, Keiko appeared to prefer human companionship. He swam straight for Norway on a 870-mile trek and settled in near a small village of Halsa on Norway's west coast in August or September 2002.
Once there, he became so listless that his team started feeding him up to 175 pounds of fish per day, and Keiko got handouts until the day he died.
The friendly, 25-foot 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.
Orcas live an average of 35 years in the wild, and it wasn't clear how much Keiko's time in captivity - or his reintroduction to the outside world - contributed to his death.
Nick Braden, a spokesman of 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 ... once they get pneumonia or one of these viral diseases that are out there, they can go down pretty fast," he said.
After Keiko died, his keepers covered him with a tarp in the water, awaiting word on what to do next. Officials from the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation said they hoped for a land burial rather than disposal at sea.
"He has a nice resting place here, and went the way I would want to go," said Richards. "But you hate to see it."