Sat, May 04, 2019 - Page 6 News List

‘Russian spy’ beluga whale has defected to Norway

RUSSIA OR FLORIDA?The whale that eagerly performs tricks for locals in the hope of a fishy snack was found wearing a harness reading ‘Equipment St Petersburg’

The Guardian

A beluga whale that may — or may not — have been trained to spy for Russia appears to have defected to Norway, refusing to stray more than a few kilometers from the small northern harbor where it was found on Monday and entertaining locals with tricks.

“He’s so comfortable with people that when you call him he comes right up to you,” Linn Saether, a resident of Tufjord on the Arctic island of Rolvsoya, told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, which has launched a poll to find a name for the mammal.

Locals have been able to pet the whale, which was found at sea by Norwegian fishers on Sunday wearing a harness fitted with a mount — apparently for a camera or weapon — and stamped with the words: “Equipment St Petersburg,” Saether said.

The beluga performs twirls and leaps, and happily retrieves plastic rings, before swimming up to the dockside with its mouth open, as if looking for a fish in reward, she said.

“It is a fantastic experience, but also a tragedy,” she added. “It’s clearly used to being given tasks and having something to do. It reacts when you call it or splash your hands in the water.”

Tor Arild Guleng told the broadcaster that the whale had followed his boat on a one-hour voyage from Rolvsoya to Hammerfest.

“It followed me, like an obedient dog without a lead,” Guleng said. “No wild animal seeks you out, sticks its head up and allow you to stroke its nose.”

Initial speculation was that the whale had escaped from a Russian military facility.

Audun Rikardsen of Tromso’s Arctic University of Norway said that the Russian navy in Murmansk, the headquarters for Russia’s northern fleet, could be involved.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has denied running a sea mammal special operations program and the Norwegian Police Security Service, which is examining the harness, has not yet concluded its investigation into where the whale came from.

An alternative theory — based on the mammal’s performances and the English inscription on its harness — is that it has somehow made its way to northern Norway from a marine park featuring captive whales and dolphins in St Petersburg, Florida.

That seems highly improbable, Rikardsen said, but wherever the whale came from, experts are now concerned about how it will survive.

“It’s hard to see how it will manage on its own,” Rikardsen told NRK. “We know whales released from an aquarium can find it difficult to adapt to life in the wild.”

He said that people should stop feeding the whale so it can learn to forage on its own and hopefully join a pod of fellow belugas — if one will accept him.

“We are determined in any case to keep track of him, because he is now our responsibility,” Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries official Jorgen Ree Wiig said.

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