A beluga wearing a bizarre harness appeared in Norwegian waters last week, sparking questions about Russia’s history of training whales for the military.
A strange mariner’s tale is unfolding in a remote Norwegian fishing village. Far above the Arctic Circle, near the small island of Ingøya, a white whale wearing a sort of harness was spotted last Thursday.
Nobody knows where it came from, or what the contraption is for. But the straps were labeled “Equipment of St. Petersburg,” and reportedly had a GoPro camera attachment, leading some experts to theorize the beluga was trained by the Russian Navy.
On Friday, a group of fishermen and marine biologists freed the whale of its harness.
Local fisherman Joar Hesten had seen the beluga and photographed it. He sent the images to the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, which contacted employees Jørgen Ree Wiig and Yngve Larsen who at the time were nearby—sailing to Finnmark in northern Norway with skipper Freddy Norvoll.
“We told [Hesten] to contact us if he would see the whale again,” Wiig, a marine biologist with the agency’s Sea Surveillance Service, told Motherboard. “And luckily he did! We were about two hours away and the fisherman managed to have the whale under surveillance all the time until we arrived.”
From their patrol ship, Rind, the men tried enticing the whale with cod fillets. While seemingly comfortable around humans, even allowing them to touch it, the whale wasn’t getting close enough.
“We figured the whale might be Russian, but we don't know so much Russian words except some quite bad ones Yngve knows from his days working as a fishermen, so we tried to just talk Norwegian to it,” Wiig recalled.
In a final effort, Hesten dove into the water and undid one of the straps. Using a tool “handcrafted to free entangled whales,” he pulled on one end of the harness while Wiig pulled on the other from a rope that he’d affixed to a different strap.
“Suddenly, it was loose! First we thought that the rope had been ripped apart but then we saw the most enjoyable thing in the water: the whale was loose from the harness,” Wiig said.
The beluga swam away, but reportedly returned to the same spot yesterday. (“I heard that a woman was feeding it small fish,” Wiig said.)
The whale’s origin is still a mystery, though Wiig believes it came from Murmansk, a Russian coastal city just 260 miles from Ingøya.
It’s also home to the Murmansk Sea Biology Research Institute—a site where beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, and seals were trained to guard naval installations, assist divers, and “kill any strangers who enter their territory,” the Guardian reported.
The whales were deemed “less capable” than their seal counterparts, the Siberian Times reported in 2017. The mammal program was funded by the Russian Academy of Sciences as part of president Vladimir Putin’s Arctic push, which also saw the reopening of “three former Soviet military bases” along the coastline, the Guardian wrote. The United States Navy has also deployed and currently runs a dolphin program.
“We have been in contact with whale researchers which I know and they have been in contact with Russian researchers which says it likely is a whale that have been trained by the Russian Navy in Murmansk,” Wiig said.
Audun Rikardsen, a professor of Arctic and marine biology at the Norwegian Arctic University in Tromsø, agrees, telling Norway’s VG that the Russian Navy is likely connected.
The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation did not respond to Motherboard’s inquiry about the whale.
The beluga’s future in the wild is even less certain. It’s unclear how the animal will fare if raised in captivity, for example.
“Hopefully it will swim away towards the Arctic again where it belongs and join a pod of white whales,” Wiig said, “but as long as it is here in Norway it is under the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries protection.”