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Free Willy...with a sting in the tail

Published: 7:03PM Tuesday September 16, 2008

The small Nelson settlement of Mapua had its own Free Willy moment on Tuesday, letting the main attraction at its aquarium, a massive stingray gifted by a fisherman, return to the sea after the best part of a decade in captivity.

At a whopping metre and a half wide, Mothership was too big for the 30,000 litre tank she has called home for the past seven years, so the decision was made to set her free.

"We've made a special net to put in the tank, and I'm going to try and chase her into the net. I've got four strong gentlemen here who are going to carry her out to the ocean." Touch the Sea Aquarium's Murray Goss explained.

Mothership has enjoyed daily hand feedings, but life in captivity hasn't been all smooth swimming for this stingray, especially after the bad PR one celebrity's fatal misadventure created.

"About a month after Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray, somebody came in here - must have been on their own - and stabbed her." Goss said. "All our other rays had stab marks on them, too."

Some might think Murray mad to jump into a tank full of sharks and stingrays, but fortunately, the biggest of Mothership's two barbs fell out about two years ago, signifcantly reducing the risks when her escape was mounted on Tuesday morning.

With all of Mapua in attendance, the Splash'n'Dash finally got underway.

Mothership actually did her bit, cruising quite happily into the net, a relief for the workers.

Then it was across the car park and straight into the ocean, with one last helping hand from her old mate before Mothership was free as the roaring tide.

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