Fishermen in Finnmark, eastern Norway, got a surprise last week when a strangely tame beluga whale came incredibly close to their boat. The animal was equipped with a harness that, according to experts, could be used to mount a weapon or camera. It is believed the whale may have been trained for military purposes in Russia.
“We were going to put out nets when we saw a whale swimming between the boats,” fisherman Joar Hesten told NRK Finnmark. “It came over to us, and as it approached, we saw that it had some sort of harness on it.”
Hesten first spotted the whale on Thursday, but others have reportedly had encounters with the surprisingly bold animal too.
“It always searches for boats and people, and then it comes all the way to the boat and tries to rub the straps off,” added Hesten, who believes the puzzling creature was looking for help. The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries managed to free the whale from its harness, which had “Equipment of St. Petersburg” written on the inside.
So, could this friendly little guy be a secret spy whale, or is there another explanation for its odd outfit and strange behavior?
While the origin of the whale is still unclear, there is speculation that it may have escaped from Murmansk Naval Base in northern Russia, a nuclear submarine base not too far from Russia’s border with Norway.
The way the whale approaches boats and interacts with humans, as you can see in the video below, strongly suggests it has lived in captivity and been trained by humans. According to The Guardian, Russia has recently been training belugas to guard naval bases, aid deepwater divers, and even kill trespassers who enter their territory. However, the little whales apparently don't have quite the same "high professionalism" as their seal colleagues.
“We know that in Russia they have had domestic whales in captivity and also that some of these have apparently been released. Then they often seek out boats,” Professor Audun Rikardsen of the Arctic University of Norway told NRK.
"If this whale comes from Russia and there is great reason to believe it does, then it is not Russian scientists, but rather the navy that has done this," added Martin Biuw of the Institute for Marine Research.
If true, this is not the first time a marine mammal has been enlisted by the navy. Since 1959, the US Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego has been training marine animals, namely bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions, to carry out tasks such as detecting and clearing mines, recovering equipment, and protecting ships. In fact, teams of aquatic service-critters were deployed in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
Not wanting to lag behind its rival, the Soviet Navy set up a similar program during the Cold War, apparently training dolphins to attach explosives to enemy subs and spot sunken ships in the Black Sea. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the project was taken over by the Ukrainian Navy. After a hiatus, the training center came under Russian control in 2014.
We still don’t know for sure whether the little white whale was trained by the Russian Navy as a sneaky covert cetacean or whether it was in captivity for some other purpose, perhaps scientific research. It’s also unclear whether the creature escaped or was purposely released into the ocean.
“We do not know everything yet, but I have contacted Russian researchers who we hope can check this out and clarify what lies behind it,” Rikardsen told NRK.
Watch this space.