Whale suspected to have been trained as ‘spy’ by Russia is spotted off Sweden coast

‘We don’t know why he has sped up so fast right now’

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Tuesday 30 May 2023 12:20 BST
Related: Man throws rugby ball for beluga suspected to be trained whale Hvaldimir

A harness-wearing beluga whale that may have been trained by the Russian navy has reappeared off Sweden's coast.

The "spy" whale was first reported in April 2019, when he was discovered near northern Norway with a harness attached to his body and a label that said “Equipment of Saint Petersburg”.

He was nicknamed "Hvaldimir" by Norwegians – a pun on the word for whale in Norwegian, hval, and a nod to the Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The whale, which was found to be in a malnourished state, spent more than three years slowly moving down the top half of the Norwegian coastline, before he suddenly picked up speed to cover the second half and move on to Sweden.

The whale was observed in Hunnebostrand, off Sweden’s south-western coast, on Sunday, AFP reported.

“We don’t know why he has sped up so fast right now", Sebastian Strand, a marine biologist with the OneWhale organisation told the news agency.

He added that it was particularly puzzling because the whale was moving “very quickly away from his natural environment”.

"It could be hormones driving him to find a mate. Or it could be loneliness as belugas are a very social species — it could be that he's searching for other beluga whales."

He told AFP that the whale is believed to be 13 to 14 years old and at an age where "his hormones are very high".

The closest beluga whales live farther north, in the Arctic Ocean and the frigid waters north of Norway and around Greenland.

A Beluga whale wearing a Go Pro harness is seen in Norwegian waters in 2019
A Beluga whale wearing a Go Pro harness is seen in Norwegian waters in 2019 (Jorgen Ree Wiig)

Directorate officials previously said the whale could have escaped an enclosure, and may have been trained by the Russian navy, as he appeared to be accustomed to humans.

In November 2019, the whale was filmed “playing catch” with a group of South African rugby fans. The whale was known to go up to boats to ask for food and play fetch and appears to be tame, suggesting he is used to interacting with humans.

The whale previously made headlines for retrieving and returning a phone which accidentally fell into the water.

According to the Hvaldimir Foundation, the whale may have become dependent on humans due to hand-feeding and does not appear to be able to successfully hunt and feed for itself.

Mr Strand said Hvaldimir’s health “seemed to be very good” in recent years, as he continues to forage fish under Norway’s salmon farms.

Belugas in the past have been used to guard naval bases, help divers, and find lost equipment, biologists said. The whales were reportedly trained by the Soviets during the Cold War to sniff out mines and torpedoes.

A Russian military spokesperson denied in April that Hvaldimir was connected to a training programme while acknowledging that dolphins are sometimes used for military purposes.

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