September 21, 2023

This famous ‘spy whale’ loves people. That can be a problem.

Hvaldimir, a domesticated beluga whale that has been spotted in Scandinavian waters for years, was seen off the coast of Sweden last week, sparking concern among researchers who feared it could be in danger, especially if people weren’t with it. stay away from him.

The highly social whale first gained notoriety in 2019, when it showed up in Northern Norway wearing a suit of armor embossed with the text ‘St. Petersburg equipment,” which appeared to be designed to hold a camera. As a result, he captured the imagination of headlines labeling him as a Russian spy.

But Hvaldimir, whose name is a combination of “hval,” the Norse word for whale, and Vladimir, is different from other whales. It seems to prefer humans to other marine mammals, leading researchers to believe it was domesticated.

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Investigators said it was impossible to know for sure whether Hvaldimir had really been a spy whale, and no country has claimed him. Military people have long used animals, including during the Cold War when the Soviet Navy trained dolphins for military use. The US Navy has trained beluga whales to perform salvage operations and find underwater mines.

The harness worn by Hvaldimir, which was later removed by a fisherman in Norway, could be used to hold cameras or other tools. According to Eve Jourdain, a marine biologist in Norway who started a feeding program to save Hvaldimir in 2019, he also seemed to be interested in divers and object collecting.

“I think there is evidence that the cameras he was carrying were not for wildlife photography,” said Regina Crosby Haug, the founder of OneWhale, a crowdfunded organization dedicated to the well-being of Hvaldimir.

But investigators are hesitant to confirm Hvaldimir’s espionage status. “We have no idea,” said Martin Biuw, a marine mammal biologist for the Norwegian Institute for Marine Research.

What is clear is that Hvaldimir now appears to be lost and swimming in the wrong direction. And observers are unsure of what to do with him.

Since 2019, Hvaldimir has been regularly appearing in Norwegian waters, but last week he was spotted in a small town off the coast of Sweden. Belugas are normally found in the Arctic, and his travels south have worried scientists, activists and other experts who fear he will run out of food or be in danger in warmer waters that will become increasingly crowded as summer begins with people. Hvaldimir has been injured before by crashing into boats and their propellers, researchers said.

The case also brings to mind Freya, a 1,300-pound walrus who was killed by Norwegian authorities last summer after they determined she posed a risk to onlookers. While Freya became famous for lounging in the sun on decks and wrecking boats, Hvaldimir won’t do the same: whales stay underwater.

According to researchers, Swedish and Norwegian officials have not announced any plans to interfere with Hvaldimir’s travels or to return him to the Arctic. The Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jourdain, the investigator, said she recently traveled to Hvaldimir to check on him. “He looked great,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean his condition isn’t getting worse.”

The main concern, she said, is that Hvaldimir is not getting enough to eat. “I have no idea what he’s feeding on and if he’s eating enough,” Jourdain said.

It is unclear why Hvaldimir is moving south. As a young man, it is possible that he is looking for a partner. He may also be looking for more food. “You can’t really read their body language,” says Anna Bisther, a marine biologist who has worked with killer whales in Norway.

Jourdain said, “He’s an arctic whale; he is not allowed to go south. He is a mystery.”

It’s not the first time a beluga whale has accidentally found itself in unfamiliar and dangerous territory. In August 2022, a malnourished beluga whale stranded in the River Seine in Paris was euthanized after struggling to breathe while being retrieved from the river in an attempt to return the animal to sea. In September 2018, a beluga whale appeared in London’s River Thames.

That also means that it is not clear what to do with Hvaldimir. Sending him to other beluga whales in the Arctic can be dangerous, as he’s not used to being in the wild.

Other belugas would likely welcome him, Haug said, because they’re extremely social animals, but the Arctic also has predators, such as killer whales.

“We don’t want to give killer whales an easy lunch by sending a tame whale that doesn’t know any better,” Haug said.

Beluga whales are a protected species, numbering about 150,000 worldwide, and they are not interested in humans for their food. But Hvaldimir, estimated to be about 14 feet tall and weigh about 3,000 pounds, can be dangerous to humans because of its size.

“Do not enter his space; he can be potentially dangerous if he wants to be,” Jourdain said. “And we know what kind of end that will lead to.”

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