He’s not here now, but there was an international hoo-haw back in 1996 when Keiko, the orca whale star of Free Willy, arrived via UPS at his new home, a huge aquarium built expressly for him at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. I was one of the lucky journalists who got to cover Keiko’s arrival, and I was nearly sidelined by the crush of photographers racing to get their shots of Keiko as he was raised in a hydraulic harness from his tank on the back of a flatbed truck, swung over the new aquarium, and lowered into the water. It was a whale of a good story, and for years, Keiko was the superstar of the aquarium, with a cadre of handlers who tried to rehabilitate him for life in the wild. This meant trying to restore the natural hunting instincts that had been sucked out of him during his years as a performer in a too-small, too-warm tank in Mexico. Eventually Keiko was released into an underwater pen in an Icelandic fjord, but he never learned how to hunt for his own food and died in 2003 of various complications. His story has always haunted me—for instance, the incredible amount of time and money spent by humans trying to restore the instincts that humans had robbed him of in the first place—and, to me, Keiko still haunts the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where for years he was able to swim in a much larger tank, one filled with seawater instead of chlorine, than he’d ever lived in before. He didn’t have to perform, but he was still surrounded by the humans who lined up in droves to watch him through underwater viewing windows.
All of which has nothing to do with the Oregon Coast Aquarium today, which remains one of the top aquariums in the country, and is definitely worth at least a couple hours of your time. Keiko’s tank has been reconfigured with a walk-through acrylic tunnel that allows you to watch the far less loveable sharks that now hungrily patrol the waters where Keiko once swam. The aquarium does a great job of telling about aquatic life in Oregon’s cold coastal waters and along its dramatic and varied shoreline. One outdoor exhibit is a walk-through aviary with tufted puffins, a beautiful and endangered shore bird. Another exhibit follows the course of a raindrop from mountain stream to sea, illustrating the journey with examples of the fish and animals found along the way. Though it rarely spreads its tentacles the full 20 feet, the giant Pacific octopus is another featured attraction. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, salt marshes, kelp forests, and the ocean waters of the Pacific—Oregon’s interlinked coastal ecosystems are amazing and beautiful, and full of the creatures you will see or learn about in this fascinating aquarium.
- Frommer's Staff