The killer whale who played WILLY in the Free Willy movie trilogy has tragically died following a dramatic case of pneumonia.

The whale, real name Keiko, died suddenly aged 27, although the average age of a killer whale is 35.

Keiko was found suffering in a Mexican aquarium in 1993, and after his rehabilitation at the OREGON COAST AQUARIUM he was airlifted to Iceland in 1998, where his handlers prepared him for life in the wild.

When he was released into the wild in July 2002 he swam to Norway, seemingly in search of human companionship, and arrived at the Norwegian village of Halsa in August 2002, where he allowed fans to pet and play with him.

When vets noticed Keiko was showing signs of lethargy recently, he was given antibiotics - but NICK BRADEN, from the HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES, admits no one had any idea just how sick the animal was.

Braden says, "They really do die quickly and there was nothing we could do. It's a really sad moment for us, but we do believe we gave him a chance to be in the wild."

DAVID PHILLIPS, executive director of the FREE WILLY-KEIKO FOUNDATION, said, "We took the hardest candidate and took him from near death in Mexico to swimming with wild whales in Norway."

14/12/2003 21:07