Over the last few weeks, a beluga whale swimming in the Arctic off Norway has given rise to speculation that it is a spy being used by the Russians. It is tame, allowing humans to pet it, and one video shows it returning a phone to a woman who had accidentally dropped into the ocean. The reason it is being described as a spy is a harness it was wearing, with the words “Equipment St. Petersburg” in English, along with a GoPro camera holder.
Marine mammals in military
Beluga whales generally live in the icy waters around Greenland, Norway and Russia. They can grow up to 6 m long, and are related to dolphins.
Other marine mammals are known to have been used for military use, including bottlenose dolphins by the US Navy since the 1960s. A dolphin can identify objects underwater that would be invisible to human divers. In a 2017 article, Live Science magazine said US Navy dolphins are deployed with teams of human handlers on patrols to look for threats such as marine mines. The magazine cited the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War as examples when Navy dolphins helped clear mines. Additionally, The Conversation quoted Michael Greenwood, veteran of the Navy dolphin project, as having said in 1976 that the dolphins were equipped with syringes filled with carbon dioxide to kill intruders.
The same US Navy programme also trains sea lions, with their excellent low-light vision and underwater hearing, to locate and mark the locations of marine mines and other threats, the Live Science article added.
In a recent report, Live Science quoted Pierre Béland, a researcher at the St Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology in Montreal, as describing beluga whales as intelligent and easily trainable. Béland cited a precedent about a beluga whale found in the Black Sea in the 1990s, apparently having escaped from a Russian military facility.
So, is this one a spy?
While Moscow has not issued any official reaction, Russian media has quoted Dmitry Glazov, a scientist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, as saying that the Russian Navy does have programmes involving whales. On the other hand, Mikhail Barabanov, a naval analyst at the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies think tank, was quoted as telling the Associated Press: “Even if there are military programs for using marine animals for navy purposes, they are unlikely to be belugas, and such animals are unlikely to be released into the open ocean.”
Another theory is that the “Equipment St. Petersburg”, which is written in English, might refer to St Petersburg in Florida, where there are water parks with beluga whales. Jorgen Ree Wiig, a marine biologist working with the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, has been quoted by the portal phys.org as saying that it wouldn’t be inconceivable for the whale to have travelled from Florida. Scientists have removed the harness.