There's Something You Need To Know About That Viral Video Of A Beluga Whale Playing Fetch

Hi everybody, IFLScience here with your regular reminder that everything is terrible.

By now you should know the formula: If you see a cute video online involving an animal and it goes viral, approach with caution. It's likely that in reality there's something horrible going on that just hasn't been revealed yet. See shower rat, baby bear climbing a mountain, the chimp using an iPhonegorilla-crow, and pretty much every video of a slow loris ever.

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Each, in their own unique way, has turned out to be a darker story than initially thought – and rugby-playing beluga whale is likely no exception. If you missed it, last week a video of some "South African rugby fans" playing fetch with an unusually friendly beluga whale went viral.

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So far, so adorable. Quick, enjoy it a few more times before we ruin it forever.

OK, got that out your system? Now brace yourself, because it's a weird one: The beluga whale may, in fact, be an escapee former Russian spy whale, now roaming the seas recovering from malnourishment, and in desperate need of being left alone by humans for its own safety.

Science writer Ferris Jabr and several other researchers have pointed out that the whale – which appears to have been filmed in waters around Norway – could be a known beluga that has been seen several times before having unusually tame interactions with humans that have gone viral.

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Several people point to the whale being Hvaldimir, who first showed up earlier this year off the coast of eastern Norway. The beluga, which has clearly been trained by humans, approached a fishing boat in April wearing a harness stamped with "Equipment of St Petersburg", prompting speculation that it may have been a Russian spy whale, with a harness used to mount a camera or even a weapon. According to The Guardian, Russia has been training belugas to guard naval bases or even kill trespassers who enter their waters.

“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 at the time.

"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," Martin Biuw of the Institute for Marine Research added.

Since Hvaldimir's appearance, marine biologists have been tracking his weight as he attempts to survive away from human care and captivity. At first, he wasn't coping well.

"I'm afraid that Hvaldimir only eats occasionally, and that he does not get enough food," marine biologist Eve Jourdain told NRK. "That could probably explain his weight loss and poor form."

The whale, now under the care of the Directorate of Fisheries, has since seen significant improvements in its physical condition.

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Nevertheless, the whale needs to be left alone by humans in order to give it the best chance of survival. For instance, its tendency to seek out boats has already seen it receive several injuries from propellers.

"These actions perpetuate habituation of the whale and reduce his chances to feed for himself, and are contrary to Norwegian efforts to rehabilitate the whale," whale biologist Jackie Hildering wrote on her website of the people playing fetch with Hvaldimir. Some accounts have suggested the crew of the boat are members of the Danah Divers research vessel, owned by the founder of the South Africa-based Save Our Seas organization, and should have known better.

Others have pointed to the example of Luna the killer whale, who died after being hit by a boat propeller whilst attempting to play with the crew of a boat he had interacted with on previous occasions. 

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There are currently warnings in place to stop people interacting with Hvaldimir, for his own good as well as others.

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In short, if the beluga is to avoid Luna's fate or similar, the filming and sharing of cutesy viral videos and playful games need to stop.

[H/T: Ferris Jabr]

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