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Keiko's Memorial

Pneumonia is being listed as the most likely cause of death for celebrity whale Keiko, who made Norway his home late last summer after surfacing in a western fjord. Local officials are calling Keiko’s sudden demise "downright sad."

Keiko’s minders noticed that he seemed ill on Thursday and stopped eating. He was found dead Friday evening after exhibiting signs that he was having trouble breathing.

"I think this is downright sad," Margrethe Saether, mayor of the local township of Halsa, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Saturday. "It is, at any rate, what we’d call a natural death. He initially seemed to have a cold, but when he was checked after darkness fell Friday, he was lying dead at the pier."

Officials cordoned off the area at Taknes Bay in Nordmoere, not far from Kristiansund, to keep the media and public away from Keiko’s corpse. They said Keiko would either be brought up on land or towed out to open sea and slaughtered. It took an excavation crew around three hours to bury celebrity whale Keiko on the shore of Norway’s Taknes Bay. The late-night operation ended around 1:30am on Monday.

Keiko’s corpse had been lying along the pier at the bay, shielded by tarps, since the popular orca died Friday evening after a short illness. The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation wanted to bury him quickly and quietly, in the hopes the public would remember Keiko as the playful, active whale that he was.

An excavator was brought to the shoreline of Taknes Bay around 10:30pm on Sunday, and it dug Keiko’s grave close to the waterline. The six-ton whale was then towed out of the water, with the help of the excavator and two tractors.

Ice and snow on the ground aided the towing effort, which lasted past midnight. The entire burial operation took place in a heavy snowstorm, which immediately covered Keiko’s grave.

Lars Olav Lilleboe of Halsa Township said eight people were present at the burial, including Keiko’s three minders. He said there was no special ceremony, "but for some, it was like burying a friend."

He confirmed that the township likely will erect a monument on Keiko’s grave. The lovable orca proved to be a tourist magnet to the remote area on Norway’s northwest coast.

Activists debate returning captive animals to the wild Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal

Keiko’s long journey from a Canadian aquarium to the Norwegian coast by way of Oregon may have ended, but the debate about the orca’s legacy will live on. Organizers of the $20 million effort to return him to the wild said that the goal of a "Free Willy"-like ending for Keiko was achieved - with mixed results.

Benefits included the study of the orca’s behavior in the final seven years of his life. He died of what is believed to be pneumonia Friday afternoon in a coastal inlet in Norway.

"Keiko showed us that it’s possible to return an orca to the wild," said Naomi Rose, an orca biologist with the Humane Society of the United States, which co-managed the project with the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation. "He didn’t swim off into the sunset, but for the last five years he thrived in his natural environment." Some marine scientists dispute the benefits gained from the project, and others vow to continue plans to return captive animals into their natural environment.

MEMORIAL A memorial is being planned by, The Free Willy Keiko Foundation sometime in 2004.