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The Whale Who Came In From The Cold

beluga whale swimming underwater.
photo by Eric Kilby

Since “The Americans” aired its final episodes about a year ago, the show’s fans have been left without an outlet for Russian espionage drama. Good news for them: They may be able to look forward to a spin-off with a surprising and charismatic aquatic star.

A beluga whale turned up off the coast of Norway on April 26, sporting a harness with a GoPro camera attachment, though no camera. The harness’s label read, in English, “Equipment of St. Petersburg.” Marine biologist Audun Rikardsen told the BBC that the harness was not the sort of equipment Russian scientists would use, according to an unnamed Russian colleague. Rikardsen’s colleague did mention, however, that the Russian navy has caught and trained belugas in the past. A Norwegian fisherman managed to remove the harness in question, which is now in the possession of Norway’s Police Security Service.

The Russian military shrugged off Norway’s concerns about the beluga’s potential role, and the Russian defense ministry denied running a special operations program involving aquatic mammals. However, retired Col. Viktor Baranets did mention that the navy sometimes uses military dolphins for combat roles during a recent interview with a Russian broadcaster, the BBC reported. Norwegian authorities have said there is no conclusive evidence so far about the whale’s origin.

Whether trained by the Russian navy or not, the beluga in question is evidently tame. The whale, which some conservationists have jokingly nicknamed Boris, has allowed locals to pet its snout, even though wild belugas are generally wary of humans. The whale reportedly also performs twirls and jumps before swimming up to the dock, evidently expecting a fishy reward.

The beluga appears to be enjoying its Norwegian vacation. First sighted off Ingoya, an Arctic island, the whale has apparently taken a liking to the port city of Hammerfest, as it has not strayed more than 25 nautical miles away from the area since arriving. Whatever the beluga’s origin, it seems to have decided Norway is a pretty nice spot.

When I mentioned this story to my wife, her response was succinct: “So the whale defected?”

We don’t know the camera whale’s opinion of Vladimir Putin, or of NATO, or of any related geopolitical disputes. We also don’t know what it thinks of the lutefisk in Norway. But we can guess why Russia might want a look at Norway’s coastline.

Hammerfest is part of Finnmark county, the northernmost section of Norway. It is practically a next-door neighbor to Murmansk, the city that serves as the home base of Russia’s Northern Fleet. About 100 miles farther south down Norway’s coast is Tromso. As I observed in this space last year, Norway’s northern coast remains strategically important, especially as a piece of NATO’s overall defense network. It is not hard to imagine why Russian military intelligence might want a covert peek, via beluga-cam or otherwise.

This raises another question, however. In the 21st century, why would the Russians use a whale instead of an unmanned submarine or other piece of technology?

Russia, like many other nations, has worked for years on developing unmanned undersea vessels, designed to handle jobs too dangerous – or too boring – for human crew. Reports point to the Russian Navy experimenting with such craft designed for offensive missions as well. But animals retain some advantages. Unlike unmanned vehicles, they do not need to be recharged. Most vehicles currently need a battery charge after about 24 hours; dolphins and whales can swim for days at a time, eating and resting as necessary in the open water. Depending on the mission, training a beluga may well be cheaper than buying an unmanned underwater vehicle. And, for the most part, marine animals can blend into their marine surroundings in a way that a water craft could never match.

According to Baranets, the Russians’ military dolphin program is based in Sevastopol, Crimea, and focuses on training the dolphins to solve problems and evaluate conditions. This suggests that the animals’ flexibility might be an attractive factor. Rikardsen observed to the BBC that “belugas, like dolphins and killer whales, are quite intelligent - they are Arctic animals and quite social, they can be trained like a dog.” Belugas can handle colder temperatures and deeper depths than dolphins can, making them ideal for missions in Scandinavia.

The Russians are not the only ones who have trained assorted wild and domestic creatures for military purposes. The U.S. Navy runs a program out of San Diego that trains bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to identify mines and other dangers on the ocean floor. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union explored using marine mammals in military capacities during the Cold War. Pigeons have been used for everything from carrying messages to dropping recording devices. And dogs, of course, have a long history of military service in varying capacities.

Service animals work with people in many walks of life, and generally it is a humane trade. The animals serve a function, and their human partners treat them well. This particular animal seemed to run away from home, though we cannot know why. Its friendliness and eager contact with people, at least, suggest it probably was not mistreated, though I am sure some animal rights proponents look deeply askance at the very idea of strapping a camera to a whale and expecting it to take selfies with whatever is going on under the sea.

The beluga has gained a vocal fan base online, and the communications adviser for Norway’s Police Security Service recently assured them, “The whale is not a suspect in our investigation, for now.” This story suggests you can only expect a whale to do what you want if that is also what the whale wants to do. It seems likely that Russia has learned that belugas, which notoriously swim so wild and swim so free, may have plans of their own.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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