Whale Watch

Russia’s secret world of whale spies — and the battle to save one of them

Who is Hvaldimir?

Giphy/Norwegian Orca Survey

It was unusual to see a beluga whale in waters this far south of the Arctic circle. And there was something else that was odd: a harness wrapped around its body.

It was a fisherman who first spotted Hvaldimir in April 2019, swimming in Norwegian waters. He contacted a local marine biologist, who contacted the Norwegian Department of Fisheries, who sent an inspector to evaluate what exactly was going on. But when the fisherman dived into the frigid water to remove Hvaldimir’s harness, he encountered the strangest element of the story: the harness had a camera mount and the inscription “Equipment St. Petersburg.”

Hvaldimir is back in the news because of a report released this week by the BBC profiling the activists currently lobbying Norway to create a sanctuary for the enigmatic whale. Norway’s fisheries directorate told the BBC this is a point of debate; some argue Hvaldimir should be “left alone and given the opportunity to live as a free animal.”

But it’s uncertain whether or not Hvaldimir knows how to be a free animal and fend for himself. That’s because experts say he could be a former Russian spy.

Who is Hvaldimir?

Hvaldimir has been swimming freely in the ocean since July 2019, but activists still worry about his safety. Whales face a number of threats, including vessel strikes from cargo ships and boats. Hvaldimir suffered from one such vessel strike in 2020.

Hvaldimir swims in Hammerfest Harbor in Norway.Wikimedia Commons

American filmmaker Reginal Crosby is now leading the charge for the Norwegian government to create a sanctuary for the whale in one of Norway’s many fjords — long, narrow stretches of sea surrounded by cliffs.

“Hvaldimir’s story is an extremely complex case and his future remains largely uncertain,” reports the Norwegian Orca Survey, the leading research organization on Norwegian killer whales. “Whilst we successfully led his rehabilitation in Hammerfest and monitoring throughout his first year in Norway, more resources and a larger panel of experts would be necessary to develop any further action.”

A moment with Hvaldimir captured by the Norwegian Orcay Survey.Giphy/Norwegian Orcay Survey

However, another question has been lingering on the conservationists’ minds. When the fisherman first discovered Hvaldimir, his harness had been equipped with a mount for a GoPro camera and clips with the insignia “Equipment St. Petersburg.”

As a result, the Norwegian government dubbed the enigmatic Hvaldimir — a cheeky combination of “Hval” or Norwegian for “whale” and an inversion of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s first name.

Considering his location and equipment, it’s speculated the beluga whale was trained and used by the Russian Navy. This has never been officially confirmed.

Does Russia train whales as spies?

Spy whales are no mere CIA spy thriller fantasy. They’re likely real.

A 2019 CNN report quotes two Norwegian marine mammal experts, who say that Russia has a history of training beluga whales since the Cold war for numerous military purposes, including:

  • Detecting mines or torpedoes
  • Finding old equipment
  • Protecting naval bases
  • Assisting divers
Signs at Hammerfest Harbor encourage tourists to leave Hvaldimir alone.Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, in May 2019, The Barents Observer published satellite footage allegedly of a “secret Arctic marine mammal facility” with two pens that house Beluga whales.

One Beluga whale was visible in the pen, but the other was missing. Based on these images, the publication suggests that Hvaldimir may have originated from this facility. The facility is located in Olenya Bay where the government reportedly houses nuclear-powered spy submarines.

But Russia’s spy scheme hasn’t just limited to whales. It’s known Russia trained dolphins during the Cold war, though that program was discontinued sometime around 1991.

However, 2016 news reports suggested that Russia may be quietly reviving its dolphin program, after a document by the Ministry of Defense seeking five dolphins in peak health was found.

History of whale and dolphin spies

US Navy officers play with dolphins displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The dolphins received care from U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program personnel from San Diego, California. Getty

While Russia has been training marine mammals since the Cold War, some former Soviet satellite countries have retained the practice.

In 2014, controversy emerged when Ukraine — which had a center specifically for training and deploying dolphins for naval operations — alleged that Russia stole its military dolphins.

The kidnapping reportedly occurred after Russia’s much-disputed annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, where the dolphins were located. The dolphins likely died, and the Ukrainian government declared them to be patriotic heroes.

The United States has also used marine mammals for military purposes.

The U.S. Navy has operated a marine mammal program based in San Diego, California since 1959, starting with a Pacific white-sided dolphin named “Notty.” A former Navy officer reported for The New York Times that he trained military dolphins to look for enemy divers and identify mines on the ocean floor in the 1990s.

Science of cetacean spies

US Navy officers train dolphins in San Diego, California. Getty

Whales and dolphins fall into a class of marine animals known as cetaceans, which are a group of intelligent mammals known for their big brains and complex cognitive abilities.

Their intelligence is helpful when it comes to training, but the true espionage skills lie in dolphins’ and whales’ sonar abilities. Both use sound waves, known as sonar or echolocation, to find food, identify prey and predators, and move around the ocean. These skills translate well to locating manmade objects on the ocean floor.

A 1997 US Navy brochure calls out the dolphins’ sonar skills and also praises dolphins' ability to dive deep without experiencing decompression sickness — known as “bends” — that humans experience. These assets make dolphins “valuable assistants to Navy divers working in the open ocean” according to the brochure.

As for Hvaldimir, he continues to swim through northern Norwegian coastal waters, stealing fish from fish farms, visiting with tourists, and unaware humans are debating his fate.

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