"We have learned that it's very easy to capture a whale, but we've also learned that it's real tough to put one back," Vinick said.
Orcas live in tight family units for their entire lives, always feeding and foraging together. Vinick thinks that it may be more challenging for wild whales to accept a stranger than it might be for Keiko to adopt a new family.
The root of the problem could be language. Though recordings indicate that Keiko's vocalizations are similar to those of other North Atlantic and Icelandic orcas, every pod seems to have a unique dialect. "We think that Keiko probably speaks the same language but not the same dialect," said Vinick.
Figuring out what else can be done to aid Keiko's reintroduction to wild whales is a challenge, Vinick said.
There is still too little understanding about community building within orca pods, and of different dialects, to know whether additional time spent helping Keiko to become more socialized will be effective in encouraging him to join a pod.
"If money was no object we would happily continue working with Keiko every summer to encourage socialization, because this whole endeavor is a wonderful research project," said Vinick. But summer research and year-round, 24-hour care cost about U.S. $3 million.
If funding is available, the research will continue next year, giving Keiko another opportunity to join a pod. In case the attempt is not successful, Ocean Futures has begun to scout out locations for a permanent home where Keiko can still enjoy his celebrity status.
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