BERLIN — An alleged Russian spy whale is refusing to leave a Norwegian port city, in what appears to be a high-profile defection after a week of global attention on the unnamed beluga.
Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries official Jorgen Ree Wiig told The Washington Post that the beluga “was the first thing I saw outside of the window” of his patrol ship in the morning. Speaking from the city of Hammerfest, he said the whale had moved only about 25 nautical miles within the past week and appeared to enjoy being close to humans, which he noted was “strange” for a beluga.
Norway’s Police Security Service, known as the PST, similarly confirmed Friday that the whale is, to its knowledge, still “cruising around outside the city of Hammerfest.”
Contrary to the species’ normal behavior, the beluga has allowed residents to pet its nose over the past few days. Even though white belugas are usually social animals and often gather in groups, they normally are extremely shy when approached by humans or other animals, and usually make a quick escape. If they find themselves isolated, however, they can start to become more trusting.
The whale was first spotted by Norwegian fishermen last week, when they noticed that it persistently harassed their boats. The fishermen subsequently spotted a strange harness wrapped around its body.
Wiig said an inscription on the harness they later recovered read “Equipment St. Petersburg.” He said he handed the harness over to the PST.
In a statement to The Washington Post on Friday, the PST offered a rare confirmation, saying that “the harness is currently in our possession.”
“We must admit that examining technical equipment attached to whales is not a daily occurrence for PST. It is unclear if we will find anything,” said Martin Bernsen, a PST communications adviser. But he offered this reassurance to the beluga’s rapidly growing fan base: “The whale is not a suspect in our investigation, for now.”
Researchers say the harness could have carried weapons or cameras, triggering fresh speculation about a sea mammal special operations program that the Russian navy is believed to have been pursuing for years. Although the Russian Defense Ministry has denied the existence of such a program, the same ministry published an ad in 2016 seeking three male and two female bottlenose dolphins and offering a total of $24,000.
In this part of Europe, nobody would be surprised if the latest Norwegian discovery did turn out to be the fallout of a military experiment gone wrong. Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, there have been creepy reminders of the Kremlin’s massive military apparatus lurking on Europe’s eastern outskirts: mystery submarines; unidentified jets, including one that almost collided with a passenger plane; and strange troop movements.
Should the Norwegians need advice on the latest discovery, they might want to ask their U.S. allies for help. Although the possible existence of a Russian sea mammal military program seemed stunning when it was made public last week, it was in fact the United States that spearheaded the use of sea mammals for military purposes in the 1950s.
According to the U.S. Navy, its own dolphin and sea lion recruits are used to locate sea mines, retrieve objects from the ocean floor and gather intelligence for military divers. They are not, however, involved in offensive operations, the Navy said.
With less experience in dealing with military-trained sea mammals than their U.S. counterparts, Norwegian officials were pondering what to do with the beluga.
Catherine Kinsman, co-founder of the Canadian Whale Stewardship Project that has focused on lone whales separated from their natural habitat for the past two decades, cautioned that officials should act quickly to prevent the beluga from being injured.
Given that the animal had “clearly been trained under the care of humans for a good long time,” Kinsman said, it might be unable to survive without being fed by humans.
Lone belugas “also need to fulfill the need for social companionship and interaction. That need is so strong that they come right up to boats, as they are attracted by sounds and by motors,” Kinsman said.
The beluga’s strange behavior in approaching fishermen and their boats, researchers warned, could ultimately pose a deadly risk.
For that reason, Norwegian officials are working on a possible evacuation plan. One option, Wiig said, was to transport the animal — who has yet to be given a name — to a sanctuary in Iceland, about 1,250 miles from Hammerfest.
That plan, he said, might increase the chances for “the survival of the whale.”
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