Off Duty

AWOL ‘Russian spy whale’ is now living his best life in Scandinavia

Last April, a peculiar beluga whale was spotted wearing a harness north of Norway. An uncommonly friendly creature, he approached several fishing boats, rubbing along their sides in an apparent attempt to remove its gear.

The fishermen happily obliged. The harness was purportedly labeled “Equipment of Saint Petersburg,.” Marine biologist Prof. Audun Rikardsen said it was connected to a camera, feeding intelligence back to Russia, according to BBC.

After being freed, the whale resurfaced again in Hammerfest, Norway, where he sporadically made appearances.

Both the United States and Russia have acknowledged funding cetaceous training centers in the past. You might recall the bomb-sniffing dolphin program the Navy launched. And while a Russian military spokesperson said that certain sea creatures are trained for military purposes, they noted that this particular whale was not connected to any of its facilities.

However, the whale continued to show outward signs of being trained by humans, and his lack of nutrition in the wild only furthered the rumors that he had escaped from a Russian spy program. Ultimately, however, his origin story remains shrouded in mystery.

More than a year later, and the enigmatic beluga, who has been caught on camera approaching boats, making friends with fishermen and playing fetch, seems to have found a home in Scandinavia.

“I spent almost an hour in the water with the remarkable cetacean,” wrote Hughes Francis Anderson for Oceanographic Magazine. “I began to understand the complexities of his new life in Norway; in a region where belugas are never ordinarily found. I soon discovered the force with which people would fight for this animal’s welfare. Questions whirled. What do we do with him?”

Because of the Russian espionage theory, the newspaper Verdens Gang began writing stories about the beluga, calling him “Hvaldimir” — an amalgamation of the Norwegian hval, meaning “whale” and of course Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It was made his official name when the publication NRK reported that around 25,000 people had voted in a poll, and Hvaldimir was the most popular choice. Runners up included Joar, after Joar Hesten, the fisherman who released the beluga from his harness, and Agent James Beluga, a play on renowned spy James Bond.

The continued media coverage and global fascination with Hvaldimir initially raised concerns about his ability to survive in the wild, clearly conditioned to be fed by humans. As a result, the Hvaldimir Foundation was launched, and the group’s mission was to raise funds to monitor and feed the beluga.

But after several months, the little beluga who went AWOL seems to be thriving on his own.

“Hvaldimir left the harbor of Hammerfest on July 19th, 2019,” the Hvaldimir Foundation website notes. “Ever since, he has been traveling on his own from place to place in Finnmark and Troms, northern Norway, apparently sustaining himself. We officially terminated our commitment to monitor Hvaldimir in December 2019.”

Talk about a great white whale.

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