Is This Whale a Russian Spy?
Both Russia and the US have a long history using marine mammals for military purposes. Could this whale, famous on social media, be a spy?
If you happen to live in the Norwegian seaside community of Hammerfest, you might’ve seen this whale. But even if you don’t live above the Arctic Circle, if you spend any amount of time on social media, there’s a good chance you’ve seen this whale anyway.
It’s a Beluga whale. His name is Hvaldimir. The videos he has starred in have received millions of views And he might be a Russian spy.
Yes, a spy whale.
See, in the spring of 2019 Hvaldimr was first spotted off the coast of Norway by a crew of fishermen. He was sporting a harness with a camera mount and he seemed to be trying to remove it. Some good samaritans helped free him from it and found an inscription on the harness saying “Equipment of St. Petersburg” — As in St. Petersburg, Russia. This led people to speculate that Hvaldimir might be a military asset of the Russian government. In fact, that’s how he got his name. Hval means “whale” in Norwegian. A newspaper began calling him Hvaldimir — a play off the name Vladimir, as in Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation.
So is this playful, seemingly tame whale, a Russian foreign agent? It’s not as far-fetched as you might think.
Whales, dolphins, and even sea lions have been a regular part of not only the Russian military but US forces for decades now.
But Hvaldimir’s story might not be so clear-cut and the very behaviors that brought him internet fame might be his undoing.
But first let’s talk about training marine mammals to be soldiers.
Russia and the US have been employing marine mammals for military purposes for a while now. The US program began in 1960 with the purpose of using marine mammals for object detection and recovery, rescue, and for locating underwater mines. After all, whales and dolphins are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. They are at home in the water. They are speedy swimmers and deep divers. They have natural abilities such as echolocation and superior eye sight that makes them ideal for underwater military missions. Even today no machine, drone, or computer can match the finely-tuned sonar abilities of a dolphin.
After testing out a few species of cetaceans and pinnipeds, the US military determined that Bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions were the best candidates for this kind of work. These animals have been employed in wartime since Vietnam, seeing action in both Gulf Wars. The US Navy has around 70 dolphins and 30 sea lions in its arsenal. Although there have been rumors the military has trained dolphins for combat, the military has denied this and even said it is “impossible” to train them to kill — which seems to imply that they must have at least tried to train them for such purposes.
In any case, the former Soviet Union launched its own marine mammal program in the 80s. Like their capitalist counterparts, they focused on dolphins and seals but the program was mostly abandoned in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Recently the Russian Federation has re-upped its marine mammal program, purchasing 5 bottlenose dolphins in 2017 and allegedly seizing a Ukrainian dolphin program during the annexation of Crimea. Most pertinent to this story, they have recently experimented with Beluga whales.
Belugas are intelligent and sociable by nature. In the wild, they often approach boats and divers out of curiosity. Their vocalizations are sophisticated enough that they can even mimic human speech. Belugas were one of the first and only true whale successfully kept in captivity. So this combination of characteristics have made them ideal candidates for capture and study.
Much of the sea around northern Russia is dominated by the Arctic ice pack — which makes it tricky to navigate by conventional means. But Beluga whales happen to be adept at navigating this ice pack. It’s their natural habitat after all.
The US doesn’t use Belugas today, but Russia has recently tried training them to guard the entrances to their northern Naval bases. This program would’ve taken place at the Murmansk Marine Biological Institute — one of the oldest and most northern research facilities in the world and just happens to be located about 600 kilometers from where Hvaldimir was first spotted. Just around the fjord, essentially.
Officially, the Russian Navy abandoned its Beluga guard whales in favor of Bearded seals who — in the words of the Russian military — showed more “professionalism”. Whatever that means.
Anyway, all of this puts Hvaldimir in the general vicinity of a military-run marine mammal training facility. He may not have been a spy, per se, but his involvement in some kind of Russian military program seems highly plausible — although Russia denies it.
What happened to the Beluga cadets of the abandoned program is unclear. They could still be at Murmansk or they could’ve been sold to another aquarium or simply dumped into the sea, entirely unprepared for life in the wild.
That seems to be the case with Hvaldimir.
But he doesn’t have to be a military whale. He could’ve been part of a perfectly ordinary scientific tracking program. That would explain the camera rig. But it doesn’t explain his attraction to humans and his unusually docile nature.
So some have theorized that he is an escaped therapy whale. Specifically, a therapy whale named Semyon (seen here in a news report from 2008). There is a nearby dive center where belugas have been used to perform and interact with children with special needs. The harness in this case would’ve been used to tow children around in a boat. But there have been no reported escapes and the facility no longer uses therapy whales.
Whatever the case may be, when Hvaldimir first arrived in the harbor of Hammerfest, Norway, he was drawn to people. It’s this extraordinary affinity for human interaction that led to his eventual internet fame. Hvaldimir has been captured on video eliciting pets and performing tricks. He has saved a cell phone from a watery death. Here he is retrieving a GoPro. Although the origin of the video hasn’t been confirmed, this is most likely Hvaldimir again, playing catch. These antics have captured the attention of the world and made his videos go viral.
But this precocious, endearing behavior masks the tragedy of Hvaldimir’s predicament. He is almost entirely dependent on humans for food.
When he first appeared, he was malnourished and underweight. Much of his playful behavior seemed to be followed up by appeals for fish and treats. Whether or not he is a Russian spy, Hvaldimir has been almost certainly raised by people. He showed no aptitude for hunting for himself and relied on handouts from the people of Hammerfest. Without people taking care of him, he would most likely starve. In fact, when he arrived in May, that’s exactly what was happening.
Eventually, the Norwegian Orca Survey took on the responsibility of feeding him with the express desire to wean him off hand feeding and get him to hunt for his own food. That would be crucial for living independently.
And this was mostly successful.
In June, Hvaldimir left the Hammerfest harbor for the first time. When researchers found him again, he had taken up residence in a secluded cove. Most important of all, he showed signs of hunting and feeding on his own.
The Norwegian Orca Survey and various volunteer groups continue to monitor Hvaldimir. He has returned to the Hammerfest harbor a few times in the months since, and the local authorities have enacted rules and codes of conduct to keep the whale safe and healthy. While Hvaldimir might not be in danger of starving any more, he has shown no indication of joining another Beluga whale pod. Belugas are very social creatures and travel the Arctic Ocean in pods of anywhere from a dozen individuals up to a hundred. But almost all of Hvaldimir’s social interactions are with people. After all, he was most likely raised by human handlers.
Whether or not he will be able to integrate with his own species or if he will spend the rest of his life seeking out people is not certain. Captive whales and dolphins have been successfully released into the wild — even re-integrated into wild populations — but it isn’t easy. It works best when we can find their family or the pod they came from. But to do that we need to know their history. Hvaldimir’s past is a mystery and his family will likely never be found. For now, humans are the closest thing to family he has.
Hvaldimir’s very presence on these social media platforms stems from his deep-seated desire for human connection. While continued human interaction will likely mean a steady supply of cute Hvaldimir videos to like and share, as long as he continues to capture our attention in the icy waters around Norway or on the relentless currents of social media, Hvaldimir will remain a captive himself, unable to break free from his inculcated dependence on us — unless he can learn to connect with his own kind. But that’s one thing we can’t train him to do.
Watch the video: