The beluga whale that kept bugging Norwegian fishermen in the Barents Sea recently would’ve been a weird story on its own. Then came the allegations that the white whale, wearing an unusual harness, was actually a trained Russian operative.
Once fishermen got ahold of the harness — the pesky whale was bumping up against boats, pulling straps and ropes, and generally causing a fuss — they discovered it read “equipment of St. Petersburg,” according to the Guardian. The harness might have been for a camera or weapon, marine experts told the U.K. paper, and fishermen reported that the whale seemed otherwise tame and used to people.
“If this whale comes from Russia — and there is great reason to believe it — then it is not Russian scientists but rather the navy that has done this,” Martin Biuw, of the Institute of Marine Research in Norway, told the Guardian. The writing on the whale’s harness was written in English, according to CBS News, and there’s no definitive proof linking it to the Russian Navy.
But, why would the Russians be deploying a beluga whale in the first place? Evidently, for defense purposes. In 2017, the Russian state-run television channel, Zvezda, ran a report on the Russian navy training whales, seals and dolphins for military use, according to the Guardian. Whale conservationists have expressed concerns that the Russian government is snatching belugas from their pods and holding them captive. Russia has scooped up dolphins since the Cold War, when it used them to attack swimmers and detect submarines until the fall of the USSR.
Russia isn’t the only nation that utilizes a “marine mammal” program in its navy. The U.S. Navy, for example, is hot on bottlenose dolphins and sea lions, since dolphins possess incredible sonar abilities that can surpass modern technology. Trained dolphins sweep cluttered harbors for mines and other objects that could hamper military activities. Sea lions attach recovery lines to navy equipment, since they can dive and resurface quickly without getting “the bends” like a human might.
It’s not immediately clear how helpful beluga whales are, as this one exposed itself pretty quickly to Norwegian fishermen. The U.S. military once explored using beluga whales because they can swim around in incredibly cold temperatures and deeper waters, according to PBS. More recently, the Murmansk Sea Biology Research Institute in northern Russia looked into the perks of militant whales, and found that whales lack the “professionalism” typically displayed by obedient sea lions and dolphins, according to the Guardian.
Cover: A beluga whale (white whale) swims in the enclosure in Srednyaya Bay, outside the Far Eastern port of Nakhodka, Primorsky krai region, Russia. Eleven orcas (killer whales) and about 90 white whales, caught in the summer and fall of 2018, remain detained in cramped enclosures in Srednyaya Bay, though Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the case to be resolved by March 1. Vitaliy Ankov / Sputnik via AP