Sat, May 11, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Russian whale could be child therapist, not lost spy

The Guardian

When Morten Vikeby saw reports that a “spy whale” from Russia had been found off the Norwegian coast, he immediately phoned his old fishery newspaper Fiskeribladet with a tip.

The amiable beluga reminded him not of a spy, he said, but of a “therapy whale” he had seen a decade ago at a diving center in northern Russia.

That whale, named Semyon, lived in a watery enclosure in Russia’s Murmansk region, and sometimes entertained tour groups of children with mental disabilities.

“Maybe it wasn’t the same whale, but it acted the same way,” said Vikeby, a former Norwegian consul to the city of Murmansk, in a telephone interview. “The whale has been accused of espionage. I see it as my big purpose to defend him.”

The tame beluga found off Norway’s Ingoya island has become a local celebrity.

Residents have christened him “Hvaldimir”, a portmanteau of the Norwegian word for whale, hval, and the popular Russian name, Vladimir.

A regular in the sea by the harbor city of Hammerfest, he even retrieved a woman’s iPhone after she dropped it in the water earlier this week.

However, the harness he was wearing when he was found, bearing a buckle stamped “Equipment St Petersburg,” has dogged his reputation, fueling speculation that he escaped a military training program in Russia’s north.

After all, who else would have put a harness on a whale, perhaps to hold a camera, and then not publicly admit it had gone missing?

Dmitry Glazov, a Russian scientist and deputy head of the beluga white whale program, said that near Murmansk alone there were “three organizations, not necessarily military, some civilian, that train marine mammals, including belugas, for various tasks: retrieving objects, or finding divers who have had problems, like equipment malfunctions.”

The Soviet Union and US famously sought to train dolphins during the cold war, but belugas also attracted interest.

There were reports of Russian plans to use belugas to defend the waters off Sochi during the 2014 Olympics, Glazov said, adding that it is unclear whether they were successful.

He said the presence of a harness alone would not confirm that Hvaldimir has any ties to the Russian military.

“These kinds of buckles are sold all across Russia,” he said.

The likelihood that Hvaldimir is the same whale that Vikeby saw in Russia in 2008 is a long shot.

“For the last two-and-a-half years, there haven’t been any whales here,” said Mikhail Safonov, the head of the Arctic Circle dive center.

The whales belonged to a separate organization called the Belomorsk Ecological Centre, Safonov said, adding that they sold the last whale to the St Petersburg Oceanarium in 2016.

A representative for that company and the St Petersburg Oceanarium could not immediately be reached on Thursday, a national holiday in Russia.

Safonov said that he never saw those belugas wear harnesses and they “never had tasks or exercises where they would exit the enclosure into the sea.”

By the beluga’s appearance, Hvaldimir appeared to have been caught in the far east, Glazov said, from where whales are sold on to oceanariums and research institutes throughout Russia.

The industry was this year rocked by a national scandal over a so-called “whale jail” in Russia’s far east, where 11 orcas and 87 belugas were held captive in appalling conditions before being sold.

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