Hvaldimir, the friendly Russian spy whale
How Hvaldimir ended up off the coast of Norway is anybody’s guess, but it is presumed that he was on a mission that somehow went wrong, and he lost his Go-Pro camera that had been attached to his harness in the process. He also did not home back to whichever port in Russia that he was released from, and swam to Norway instead.
A few weeks ago, a friend tagged me in the comments on a Facebook video, assuming I’d want to see it. I am a fierce advocate for animals and animal rights, and I adore them. Animals and birds bring me immense joy (I’m particularly partial to the antics of baby goats and owls, although Chunk the groundhog currently has my heart, as does Sushi the shoebill stork) and friends often tag me in photos and videos of cute attacks. This particular video, though, didn’t make me smile.
It was a video of a couple of men in a boat off the coast of Norway playing fetch – yes, you read that right – with a beluga whale. I watched in amazed horror as the beluga rubs up beside the boat, keeps up with it, and then chases the ball that the men throw into the water, bringing it back to the men in his mouth before they throw it again and he heads off again to fetch the ball. That is not a wild beluga, I remember thinking, as I watched the video again. I have had the privilege of watching belugas in the wild – they are incredibly shy, do not go up to boats and people (and can you blame them?) and will most likely not pick up something from the water as they are deeply suspicious of objects that they are not familiar with. It’s got to be a fake video, I thought as I hit replay. I convinced myself that it was a trick with a captive beluga in a park like Seaworld (which I do not and will never support) and that the video had been manipulated to look like the ocean. No wild beluga, I knew, would ever behave that way.
I tried to put the video out of my mind, but it continued to bother me for a couple of weeks. As my life took some twists and turns that I had never anticipated, and as I dealt with those events as well as the trauma of dealing with the death of my dog on June 8th, I forgot about it. Then, in a weird twist of fate, someone else tagged me again on the same video, and the memories came flooding back. This time though, I did my research.
In April 2019, fishermen who were mooring their boats in the fishing village of Tufjord in northern Norway reported meeting a very friendly whale. The beluga in question was wearing a Go-Pro harness with the words ‘Equipment of St Petersburg’ inscribed on it, and he was approaching the fishermen in the boats and bumping against the sides, pulling ropes and straps with his teeth, and trying to attract their attention whilst opening his mouth and begging for food. Cetacean experts who rushed to the scene eventually managed to help the fishermen undo the straps of the whale’s tight harness. Two things were very clear. One, this was a tame beluga. Two, it was very likely that he couldn’t feed himself. As they debated what to do to help him, the whale followed a fishing boat that was heading from Tufjord to Hammerfest on April 30th, and he stayed in Hammerfest harbour.
The friendly beluga who loved human contact captured the imagination of the Norwegian nation. A public poll to name him resulted in the name Hvaldimir - ‘hval’ is Norwegian for whale, and ‘dimir’ is in honour of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. How Hvaldimir ended up off the coast of Norway is anybody’s guess, but it is presumed that he was on a mission that somehow went wrong, and he lost his Go-Pro camera that had been attached to his harness in the process. He also did not home back to whichever port in Russia that he was released from, and swam to Norway instead. I was surprised that marine animals were being used by certain governments, but apparently, there is a top-secret Russian program that utilises the services of not just whales, but also dolphins. The animals are used in military programmes across the world and can be trained to find and retrieve lost equipment, detect mines, or find intruders or divers.
Russia, however, vehemently denied that Hvaldimir was theirs. According to this article in the BBC, “Interviewed by Russian broadcaster Govorit Moskva, Col Viktor Baranets said, "If we were using this animal for spying do you really think we'd attach a mobile phone number with the message 'please call this number'? We have military dolphins for combat roles, we don't cover that up," he said. "In Sevastopol (in Crimea) we have a centre for military dolphins, trained to solve various tasks, from analysing the seabed to protecting a stretch of water, killing foreign divers, attaching mines to the hulls of foreign ships." The dolphin facility in Crimea used to be under Ukrainian control but was seized by the Russian navy in 2014 when Russian forces took over the peninsula. Prof Rikardsen, who teaches at the University of Tromso, said, "Belugas, like dolphins and killer whales, are quite intelligent - they are Arctic animals and quite social, they can be trained like a dog".”
Wherever Hvaldimir came from, and whatever the origins are of the Go-Pro harness that he was wearing continues to remain a mystery. Nobody has come forward to claim him. It is highly likely that he is Russian property and that something went deeply wrong, which resulted in his being found in Norway. Claiming him would also draw attention to the secret military facility that he likely escaped from or never returned to. This is also not the first time that the Russians have lost a marine animal asset. According to Live Science, “This isn't the first case of a Russian-trained beluga going AWOL. In the mid-1990s, Pierre Béland, a research scientist in marine biology at the St. Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology in Montreal, Canada, got a call from government officials in Turkey, asking if it was normal for a beluga whale to be in the Black Sea. "I said, 'No, not at all. These animals live in the Arctic and aren't typically found in warmer waters.’"
Béland flew to Turkey, where he saw the whale with his own eyes, swimming off the country's northern coast. "It was tame, it would come to us and you could give him fish and pat him on the head," Béland recalled. He also noticed something curious: the whale's teeth had been filed down flat. "It turned out [the beluga] was coming from a naval facility on the Russian side in the Crimea," Béland said. "We surmised they had filed its teeth so it could take a big object in its mouth, such as a magnetic mine that it could stick on the hull of a foreign ship for military purposes."
Béland later learned that a storm had ripped a net at this naval facility, allowing the beluga whale to escape. But the Russians found out; they parked their ship within international waters and someone, presumably the whale's trainer, was able to call the whale back. A year later, the whale escaped to Turkish waters again. By this time, the whale had quite a fan base in Turkey. But, once again, the Russians returned and collected the mammal, "and I never saw it again," Béland said.”
Coming back to Hvaldimir, the more pressing question was what should be done with him. The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries stated that Hvaldimir was their responsibility and set up the Hvaldimir Foundation consisting of a group of people to monitor and feed him regularly. The public was also told not to feed Hvaldimir, but to let him get used to one person feeding him and caring for him. His feeding sessions became incredibly popular and a lot of people turned out to the sleepy Hammerfest harbour just to watch.
If Hvaldimir had grown up in the wild with his family the way he was supposed to, he would have been a member of a pod. A group of whales is commonly referred to as a pod and a pod usually consists of a group of whales that have bonded together either because of biological reasons (i.e. family relations) or through friendships developed between two or more whales. It is a large stable social group of whales that hunt their prey as a group, migrate together, and share the care of their young. Loneliness and depression is something that solitary whales can and do suffer, and Hvaldimir’s mental health is a worry. Moreover, Hvaldimir loves humans. He loves the social interactions with humans, as is evidenced by his constantly swimming up to boats, enjoying socialising with human beings, and, as I saw in the video, playing fetch. At some point, he was taught to retrieve things such as balls and toys and was probably given fish as a reward. He recently put this skill to good use by diving for a dropped cell phone and returning it to its delighted owner.
Watching Hvaldimir interact with humans brings to mind the story of another whale who loved humans, Luna. Luna (September 19, 1999 – March 10, 2006) also known as L98 or Tsux'iit, was an orca who was born in Puget Sound, Canada. After being separated from his mother while still young, Luna spent five years in Nootka Sound, an ocean inlet of western Vancouver Island, where he had extensive human contact (it was impossible to keep him away from people and it was even deemed that human interaction could be beneficial for him until he was reunited with his pod). Luna achieved international fame for his friendly and playful nature.
Although Luna was healthy and his presence in the area attracted extensive publicity, there were concerns that his behaviour could endanger both himself and people. After years of debate, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans authorised an effort in June 2004 to rescue Luna and return him to his pod. Although the plan was opposed by the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations, who believed Luna was the reincarnation of a former chief, they went ahead with trying to lure Luna into a floating pen. Although initially allowing himself to be herded into the pen, Luna escaped. That was as close to capture that Luna ever came.
Plans were made for another attempt in the spring. However, it never came to pass. In March 2006, Luna approached a boat he knew — the ocean tugboat, General Jackson — whose crew were interacting with him. It is believed that Luna went up to the tugboat intentionally, as he often did, to engage in play. Underestimating the power of the idling vessel — tugboats have much more powerful engines than other ships of their size — Luna was pulled by suction from the propellers into the six-foot diameter blades and tragically killed at the age of six.
I see far too many parallels between Hvaldimir and Luna, and I have to confess that it worries me terribly. Stories of wild animals that develop a close relationship with humans are not uncommon, but in most cases, it leads to the death or capture of the animal in question. We (human beings) are an extremely destructive race and we bring sorrow to the other creatures that inhabit this planet with us. Luna’s case is a classic example. In 2019, a baby bear was killed in Oregon after authorities said that it had ‘become too friendly’ with humans. This keeps happening because we are the dangerous ones. The baby bear didn’t even run away from the people who went to find him to kill him. Luna went towards a tugboat to play. And Hvaldimir? How will his story end?
I continue to be hopeful for Hvaldimir, despite a deep fear that his story too may end in tragedy. The signs are already there. In September 2019, Hvaldimir was injured by boat propellers after having been harassed by recreational boaters in Alta Fjord. A marine biologist also observed that Hvaldimir only eats sporadically and is malnourished. The only way Hvaldimir can be sure of surviving is if the Norwegian government moves him to a sea-based sanctuary for his safety. Despite talk of this happening, I am unsure as to what is happening about this now. Beluga pods do visit the waters near Norway, as well as loners, but there is no knowing if there is a way to socialise him with one. An expert I spoke to suggested that it may not be possible, as belugas in pods have their own unique language and communication structures, and there is a possibility that they may attack a stranger in the pod. There are risks from nature too. There are two types of orcas: one that eats fish and the other that eats mammals. Both types swim past Norwegian waters, and there are dangers of him encountering the wrong ones.
Meanwhile, Hvaldimir received a visit from no less than the Prime Minister of Norway herself. He seems to be making social overtures to other creatures besides humans, as can be seen in this interaction with a seagull that dropped its fish. In an absolutely heart-melting moment, Hvaldimir finds the fish and gives it back to the seagull.
Hvaldimir left the Hammerfest harbour of his own volition on July 19th 2019 and is feeding himself. He continues to swim in northern Norwegian waters and is no longer being monitored by the Hvaldimir Foundation as of December 2019, although they do update their Facebook page with news of recent sightings of him (he was last sighted in May 2020). All I want for Hvaldimir – and I’m sure you will join me in this - is for him to live a happy, healthy, and long life.