In April 2019, a Beluga whale was found by fishermen near the islands of Ingoya and Rolvsoya in Norway. Not all that unusual in the frigid waters of Norway except that this whale was wearing a harness labeled “Equipment St. Petersburg” with a camera mounted in it. People concluded the whale escaped(or defected) from the Russian spy program. No one claimed the friendly beluga, who was later on named Hvaldimir, and advocates raised concerns about his safety if left in the wild resulting in the creation of an organization called One Whale formed to protect the animal from Nature (we covered the story here). Unknown to many, Hvaldimir was not the first beluga to have escaped from Russian intelligence. In 1991, there was another one named Tichka, and here’s his crazy and heartwarming story.

Brought by the Storm

A month before the Soviet Union dissolved in September 1991, a strong storm hit the Biotechnical Systems Institute of the Russian military base situated in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula. Several dolphins, sea lions, and two belugas were kept in the sea pens of the facility’s port. The storm was so severe that it tore open the pen and nets confining the belugas. Igor, the younger one, decided to stay in the enclosure while the older one named Tichka made a dash for the open waters of the Black Sea and freedom.

Aydin with Igor at the Lapsi oceanarium, 1992. (© Emilio Nessi via dolphinproject.com)

Tichka was just three years old when he was taken away from his wild pod and brought to “Vitjaz Base” via a helicopter. There, he received obedience training before he was transported to the TINRO Pacific Scientific Research Fisheries Center in the city of Vladivostok. Then, he was transported to the Biotechnical Systems Institute of the Russian— his last stop before he managed to escape.

Arrival in Gerze, Turkey

Tichka wandered by himself in the Black Sea for four months until January 27, 1992, when he reached a harbor in Gerze, Turkey. Familiar with people, the starving beluga approached some fishermen and begged for food. Belugas were not common in their area, so the citizens were pleasantly surprised to see Tichka. His friendliness to people, combined with his ability to do tricks like catching polo balls, made them fall in love with him. Children and tourists would flock to see him, and Tichka would gladly greet them. People loved feeding him that even those poverty-struck fishermen would throw him a fish or two. Unaware of his name, the Turkish people named him Aydin, which translates to “the enlightened or clever one” in Turkish. The people of Gerze were so thrilled at Aydin’s presence that they even changed their coat of arms and added a beluga in it.