One for Willy : Art: Robert Wyland will paint whale mural so a Mexico park will enlarge quarters of a popular film’s starring whale.


Even by Robert Wyland’s mammoth standards, this shapes up as a whale of an accomplishment.

Wyland is the Laguna Beach artist who has spent 13 years painting life-size pictures of whales on walls of buildings around the world in a do-it-yourself campaign to protect the huge mammals.

Now he may soon pull off what animal activists, aquatic park experts and even singer Michael Jackson have failed to do: free the real-life captive whale that portrayed the fictional captive whale in the movie “Free Willy.”

Operators of El Nuevo Reino Aventura park in Mexico City, who own the killer whale named Keiko, have promised to move the 3 1/2-ton animal from an undersized tank in exchange for Wyland painting one of his whale murals at their park.


Wyland said Wednesday that he will airbrush a huge portrait of a frolicking Keiko near the entrance to the park as the finale to a summer whale-painting spree that began Aug. 1 in Anchorage and brought him this week to Los Angeles.

“I’ve been saying for years that art can help save the whales. Now it’s actually going to save one,” the 38-year-old artist said as he took a break from painting barnacles on a whale on the east side of Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Today, he hopes to start work on a second whale mural at Paramount Studios.

Although his whales cavort on buildings in Redondo Beach and Long Beach, the two Hollywood murals are Wyland’s first in Los Angeles. Others have been painted in France, Australia, Japan and Canada, as well as in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and Georgia.

Each shows whales swimming freely in their natural ocean setting. Ironically, that was the plot of last year’s “Free Willy"-- a movie depicting a killer whale being liberated from a disreputable theme park by a determined young boy.


The part of Willy in the film was played by Keiko, a 14-year-old male that has lived in the Mexico City amusement park for about nine years.

The movie prompted calls for the relocation of Keiko. Entertainer Michael Jackson--who sang the movie’s theme song--became involved last year amid rumors that he might move the whale to his Neverland Ranch north of Santa Barbara.

Other pleas came from a trade group of theme parks and aquariums led by San Diego’s Sea World that offered to move Keiko to larger quarters in the United States and from animal activists who lobbied for his release into the ocean.

Reino Aventura officials accepted Wyland’s whale mural offer in July.


After Wyland finishes the park mural the week of Sept. 25, the park “pledges to relocate Keiko to a larger habitat in 12 months, or not later than 18 months,” according to park General Manager Oscar Porter.

Wyland said he has begun contacting marine biologists and whale experts he has met over the years to get their ideas about Keiko’s future. If the whale--described by some as sickly--can be nursed back to health, it might be reunited with its original pod off Iceland.

According to Wyland, the Mexico City whale mural--to be his 66th--won’t be his last. He hopes to paint 100 by the year 2011.

“I don’t get tired of them. Each one is different. I try to put in individual physical characteristics,” he said.


Using a mechanical hoist and an industrial-strength sprayer, Wyland goes through about 400 gallons of aqua-colored paint for each mural. His current eight-city painting excursion involves 24 paid staff members and about 50 volunteer workers at each stop. The project is costing about $750,000. Wyland said expenses are defrayed by 11 corporate sponsors; he has donated $250,000 from the profits of 18 art galleries he owns that sell his whale-themed paintings, books and sculptures.

Wyland, known professionally by just his last name, was busy Wednesday autographing things such as the Wyland T-shirt that fan Chrissy Carballo, 19, of Burbank was wearing. “It’s indelible ink. But I may just hang the shirt up and never wash it,” Carballo said.

Whale mural fans say Wyland’s boyish looks and unflagging enthusiasm about the ocean environment are reasons for his success.

“I liked his work before I met him,” said underwater photographer Jeff Pantukhoff, 35, of San Diego--an admirer since 1981. “Two weeks ago in Seattle I met him. Now I really like his work.”


Jose Fuentes, 37, a writer from Long Beach, said he took his son and his son’s friends to watch Wyland paint the Long Beach Convention Center whale mural a few years ago. On Wednesday, he drove to Hollywood to watch the new project take shape.

“It’s refreshing to see something like this and not graffiti,” Fuentes said.

Wyland--who said practice has cut the “gestation period” of painting time for his whales to a mere four hours--had time to talk and joke with everyone.

“I have to apologize to Mann’s Chinese Theatre for leaving my footprints out front,” he said with a laugh. “I stepped in some paint. I’ll clean it up before I leave.”