Although it’s not at all unheard of for a national navy to train aquatic mammals for certain undersea tasks, Norway’s Institute of Marine Research now contends that a beluga whale that has been harassing fishing boats in the Arctic Circle is actually a Russian Navy asset that’s been deployed to the region. As crazy as that may sound, there is at least some evidence to support this unusual accusation.
After receiving multiple reports of the whale headbutting fishing boats and chewing on fishing nets near the island of Ingøya, Norway’s Marine Research Institute decided to intervene for the sake of both the fishermen and the whale itself. They were in for quite a surprise.
Initially, their plan was to deploy a net over the whale as it swam between their boats, but as the beluga approached, they were met with two surprises: First, the whale seemed to be tame, swimming right up to researchers as though it was looking for food. Second, the whale was wearing a harness that researchers say civilian scientists would not likely use. On the side of the harness, written clearly in English, were the words “Equipment St. Petersburg.”
“This is a tame animal that is used to getting food served, so that is why it has made contacts with the fishermen,” explained Audun Rikardsen, a professor at the Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsoe. “The question is now whether it can survive by finding food by itself. We have seen cases where other whales that have been in Russian captivity are doing fine.”
According to local reports, the harness included areas to attach cameras or other possible surveillance equipment, suggesting that the whale may have been trained to help identify undersea or surface naval activity. Rikardsen added that he had checked with civilian researchers and scientists from both Russia and Norway and has yet to find any active programs based on this sort of experimentation with beluga whales, which seems to further suggest the involvement of the Russian Navy.
Researchers and fishermen jumped into the water alongside the tame whale and removed its harness.
Although Russia does not have a formally recognized whale-training program within its military that has been publicly disclosed, the Soviet Union did have a widely known dolphin training program. Soviet dolphins were trained in various undersea tasks, ranging from identifying hidden mines to placing explosives themselves. The Russian Ministry of Defense published a request to purchase five dolphins for training in 2016, though no public acknowledgement of that program has manifested since.
You can watch researchers interact with the apparently tame beluga below.