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imgresDiane Hammond is a Keiko expert.

You may know Diane Hammond as a popular writer of several successful Pacific-Northwest based books, but I was first introduced to her as Keiko the whale’s press secretary. As a naturalist and orca freak, naturally I worshipped Keiko, the world’s most famous whale, who began as a movie star and ended as proof that captive animals can be successfully rehabilitated to become wild again. I remember hearing and reading Diane’s name several times as I followed Keiko’s story back in the late 90s.

Diane has written several popular books, including Going To Bend, Homesick Creek, and Hannah’s Dream. That last book is a wonderful story about an elephant – interesting, given that elephants and orcas actually have a lot of similar characteristics, not the least of which is their incredibly complex social and family structures.

The sequel to Hannah’s Dream is her newest release, called Friday’s HarborShe shows love to our town with the title, but the name Friday in this story actually refers to the whale it is written about. It is, of course, based on Keiko; but it is fact woven in fiction . Of the book, Diane says she hopes that “while it poses difficult questions about holding animals in captivity, readers will recognize that the book is, at its core, a love story.”

Diane is certainly among those few people in the world who can call themselves familiar with beloved Keiko, as she spent a lot of imgres-1time observing him while he was at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where she worked during his entire stay. Her husband, Nolan, was in charge of his rehab there. It was an exhausting two years for Diane, being at the center of a constant media whirlwind, and so when it was over she decompressed by doing what came naturally to her – writing about it. What resulted was a series of stories and vignettes that captured Keiko’s character, and eventually became Friday’s Harbor.

I was thrilled to be able to correspond with Diane, and she was nice enough to grant me a short interview about her book and experiences with Keiko. Below is the transcript of that interview. Thank you, Diane, for a fascinating look into the amazing whale that captured so many of our hearts. Friday’s Harbor is available now at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere.

Can you tell me what it was like to be so close to Keiko and his story? What were some of the challenges and alternatively, best things about your position as spokesperson for the aquarium, concerning Keiko?

“Until Keiko arrived in Newport, Oregon at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, I hadn’t ever seen a killer whale, not in the wild and not in captivity. I consider myself extremely fortunate in two ways: that I was given Keiko’s story to tell to the world’s media; and that in Keiko’s rehabilitators I also had gifted teachers who taught me both what Keiko needed and how they went about designing a never-before-done program to meet those needs.

Keiko greets his young fans at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Keiko greets his young fans at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

For those two years I was privileged to spend every day, all day at Keiko’s pool, telling his story to journalists from around the world. What writer wouldn’t sell her soul for that opportunity? And here’s what surprised me most in that two years of surprises: that an animal that lived in a different medium than we do and with whom he had no shared language could develop individual, complex and unique relationships with each member of his staff.”

Have you been to San Juan Island to see wild orcas? How did that experience change your view of Keiko, if at all?

“Since the Keiko project ended, I have been to San Juan Island, though I haven’t seen the orcas in the Sound there. I envy those of you who live in the San Juans—especially since for the last three years my husband Nolan Harvey and I have made our home in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can’t get much more landlocked than the Twin Cities! Nolan was the director of Keiko’s rehabilitation, and we still talk about Keiko often, especially now that Friday’s Harbor has been released.”

What role did your husband have in improving Keiko’s condition?

“By the time Nolan joined Keiko’s staff he’d had nearly 25 years of experience working with marine mammals all over the world. His specialty was veterinary care, and he’s an amazing trainer, so his challenge was to design a program that not only restored Keiko to good health, but reversed Keiko’s life experience to prepare him for a return to the wild. Rather than training him to leave the wild behind, learning to eat dead fish and live in a man-made marine environment, Nolan’s job was to re-teach Keiko to catch and eat live fish and live in a wild environment. It had never been done before, and I doubt that it’ll ever be done again. It was killingly expensive, and there’s never been consensus on whether the project was ultimately a success or a failure.”

I read that you wrote the book as fiction to avoid becoming entangled in the Blackfish controversy. Why do you think killer whales are becoming such a hot topic lately, and what can Keiko’s story teach us about them?

“Actually, I didn’t know anything about Blackfish until Friday’s Harbor had not only been written but released. I didn’t want to write about whether or not killer whales should be kept in captivity. I wanted to tell a love story about the extraordinary relationships and bonds that form between killer whales and people. In the end, that was what I took away from the Keiko years, and that was what I felt I could write about most compellingly.”

What was your favorite thing about Keiko and your bond with him, and what do you want the world to remember about him?

“I can’t claim to have had any relationship of my own with Keiko–while I witnessed every step of his rehabilitation while he was in

Keiko in "Free Willy"

Keiko in “Free Willy”

Oregon, I was strictly an observer. But I would hope that people remember him as an incredibly courageous and adaptable animal. Through twenty-plus years of isolation and environmental squalor—poor diet, small pool, warm water—he was able to live as full a life as possible by forging relationships with his human caretakers. If there was an animal that deserved to spend his last seven years living in an increasingly rich environment, it was Keiko.”

Finally, do you have any special Keiko moments you’d like to share?

“We had always been told that in Mexico City, Keiko had “loved children.” We were skeptical, but we put it to the test on Christmas day, 1996—Keiko’s first Christmas in Oregon, and a dull day because the Oregon Coast Aquarium was closed. Nolan and I decided to give Keiko my daughter as a Christmas present. She was six years old, and relatively unimpressed with him, but we put her in rubber boots and gave her a bucket of fish and escorted her to the side of the pool. He joined her immediately, propping his chin on the pool-side and eating fish after fish that she offered him. Then he swam away from her very slowly. With nothing better to do, she  followed him in the wet-walk until he stopped. When she caught up with him, he swam ahead again, and they followed this routine several times more—until, when she stopped, he rolled onto his side, raised his six-foot-long pectoral flipper, and touched her with great delicacy right on the top of her head. He had taught her the game of follow-you-follow-me. He also taught her a game of push-me-push-you that day, lunging into her cupped hands and then letting her “push him” underwater—a feat she could no more have actually accomplished than she could have picked up an elephant with her pinky.”

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