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.

Aydin, or Tichka, showing the scar on his upper right lip
Aydin, or Tichka, showing the scar on his upper right lip. (From A Farewell to Whales by Pierre Béland, photographer unknown via dolphinproject.com)

Belugas were not native in the Black Sea, so the question was asked: Where did Aydin come from?

The conclusion was that he escaped from an oceanarium. People wanted an answer, and Aydin gained huge media attention. Despite all this, the Soviet Union stayed silent, not admitting or denying connection with the charming beluga. With that, The Turkish Ministry of Environment took responsibility for Aydin and had him checked by Pierre Béland, a senior research scientist of the St. Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology, and Dr. Sylvian De Guise, who was a veterinary pathologist, both from Canada. The blood works turned out fine, and everything looked normal except for his teeth that were “worn down to the gums, even more so farther on the upper jaw, a pattern not at all like the usual wearing of beluga teeth in the wild.”

Aydin’s perfectly worn teeth, possibly filed down
Aydin’s perfectly worn teeth, possibly filed down. (© Pierre Béland via dolphinproject.com)

Later on, a hypothesis was formulated that Aydin had been “trained as a saboteur and had his teeth filed so he could mouth large objects, such as magnetic mines, which, at the risk of his life, he could fix on to the hulls of enemy ships and submarines.”

Claimed Back By The Russians

There were concerns about Aydin’s health because he lived a rather solitary existence, and belugas are known to be very social, usually found swimming with their pods. The Canadian expert’s recommendation was to leave him alone where he was found because returning him to the Bering Sea could be risky for him since he might think that all humans were friendly. The Turkish Government ignored the recommendation and instead gave an ultimatum to the Russian Government to claim back Aydin. Of course, the Turkish people were not happy that they protested and held demonstrations to leave the beluga alone. The Battle of the Baluga had begun.

Lev Mukhametov, the head of the Russian institute where Aydin came from, arrived in Turkey aboard a ship to transport Aydin back to Russia in April 1992. The Russians claimed the whale had escaped from an ocean aquarium and was used for any military porpoises(we mean purposes). The Russian vessel was welcomed by the Turkish people with a protest flotilla of fishing boats trying to prevent them from docking. After a few days, the Russians found Aydin in the Espiye area. He followed them as they dropped fish to coax him away from the shore until they could capture and lift him aboard their ship. Just like that, the beluga adored by everyone was gone… or so they thought.

Goodbyes Are Not Forever

In November 1992, as if Dalai (Turkish’s god of the ocean) himself had willed it, another storm struck Aydin’s pen. He was free once more. Mukhametov offered around $3,500 for anyone who could give information about the fugitive beluga. In February 1993, Aydin surprised the people of Gerze by finding his way back to the community that cared for him. In the end, the Turkish Government decided to prohibit capturing him in the Turkish waters. And so he spent the whole spring swimming along and being fed by the divers and tourists which is no mean feat as these whales eat about 150 pounds of fish a day. He was last seen on July 17, 1993, before he disappeared without a trace. By November the following year, there were reported sightings of a whale by the Bulgarian coast, although it was not confirmed if it was Aydin.

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