WHAT’S BEING CLAIMED:
- When a tame beluga whale was spotted wearing an unusual harness off the coast of Norway, it was suspected to be spying for Russia, which has a naval base nearby.
- A Russian reserve colonel brushed off Norway’s concerns but did not deny that the beluga could have escaped from the Russian navy.
- Other countries have also trained marine mammals before, such as sea lions and dolphins, to support intelligence efforts.
A human-friendly beluga whale has been found off the coast of Norway wearing a strange harness, and is now suspected to be a Russian spy. Now, it might sound bizarre, but this would not be the first time that an aquatic mammal was used as intelligence support.
The friendly whale was seen repeatedly approaching Norwegian boats off the Arctic island Ingoya, about 415km (258 miles) from Murmansk, where Russia’s Northern Fleet is stationed. A Russian naval base can also be found nearby.
When a Norwegian fisherman took a closer look, he noticed that the tame beluga was wearing an unusual harness.
The harness “was attached really tightly round its head, in front of its pectoral fins and it had clips,” according to Norwegian marine biologist Professor Audun Rikardsen.
He went on to claim that the belt had a GoPro camera holder but there was no camera. The label indicated that it hailed from St. Petersburg.
He explained, “A Russian colleague said they don’t do such experiments but she knows the navy has caught belugas for some years and trained them – most likely it’s related to that.”
A Russian broadcaster interviewed Russian reserve colonel Col. Viktor Baranets about the incident but he brushed off Norway’s concerns.
He quipped, “If we were using this animal for spying do you really think we’d attach a mobile phone number with the message ‘please call this number’?
However, he did not deny that the beluga could have escaped from the Russian navy.
He explained, “We have military dolphins for combat roles, we don’t cover that up. In Sevastopol (in Crimea) we have a center for military dolphins, trained to solve various tasks, from analyzing the seabed to protecting a stretch of water, killing foreign divers, and attaching mines to the hulls of foreign ships.”
Ukraine had previously been in charge of the dolphin facility in Crimea until the Russian forces took over the peninsula in 2014.
Other countries have trained marine mammals before to aid intelligence efforts.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program trained sea lions and dolphins to locate mines and other dangerous objects on the ocean floor.
According to Prof. Rikardsen, “Belugas, like dolphins and killer whales, are quite intelligent – they are Arctic animals and quite social, they can be trained like a dog.”
The beluga’s harness has since been removed and it has been released into the wild.