A beluga whale wearing a specialty harness understandably caught the eye of some Norwegian fishermen earlier this week. And while the sea creature was nothing but friendly, some experts think his origins may have been nefarious – it’s possible the whale was trained by Russian military to be an underwater spy.
There are a few reasons why the fishermen suspected the beluga might be a little different than his other underwater friends. For one, it seemed entirely comfortable around humans. The beluga was the one to approach the boat and, over the past few days, has even played a game of underwater fetch with some Norwegian locals.
The whale also makes little gestures that seem to be asking for food, indicating it is used to people feeding it as opposed to hunting for its grub in the wild.
But it was the gear strapped to the friendly whale that really blew up its cover. The animal wore a tight harness with the words “Equipment St. Petersburg” written on it. The harness had what looked like a mount for a camera such as a GoPro that could potentially be used for spying.
So, We Just Train Sea Creatures for the Military Now?
Yup, and not just now! As far back as the 1960s and then the Cold War, the U.S. and Russian militaries explored the different ways they could use dolphins and whales as part of their military resources.
The thought may bring to mind a scary and bizarre arsenal of trained dolphin killers, ready to infiltrate enemy lines or swim a bomb over to an opponent’s submarine. And while it’s unlikely we’ll ever know all the secrets from inside military training facilities, dolphins, sea lions and beluga whales aren’t being used to kill in the U.S.
The animals are incredibly intelligent, curious and easy to train, and are way better than humans at using their bio-sonar abilities to find things underwater. They’ve been used in search and rescue missions for missing boats or divers, as well as to find underwater mines that human technology couldn’t get to.
What’s Going to Happen To This Nice Beluga?
Russia hasn’t commented on the beluga whale, and it’s unlikely the country ever would. Some experts speculate that the whale could have escaped somehow from a naval facility in the northwest part of Russia. Of course, it’s also possible that this is a whale coming from a more innocent facility of marine biologists trying to learn more about the species.
But if it really is a spy, it seems like it wants to defect. Locals of the tiny Norwegian port town say it's become a local celebrity and doesn't show any indication of wanting to leave. Along with the game of underwater fetch with plastic rings, it has allowed people to pat it on the nose.
Or is this friendliness with its new Norwegian neighbors all part of a stealthy undercover ruse? We may never know.
About the Author
Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.