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Beluga Whale, Believed to Be a Russian Spy, Surfaces in Sweden

Published: May 30, 2023
General view of beluga whales at Wild Arctic at SeaWorld on July 20, 2021 in San Diego, California. (Image: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

A beluga whale, wearing a harness that reads “Equipment St. Petersburg,” surfaced off the coast of Sweden this week, puzzling scientists who say it has strayed too far away from its natural habitat. Due to the harness and observed behavior, authorities believe the whale is a trained Russian asset.

The whale was first spotted four years ago off the coast of Norway by fishermen who noticed it was wearing a harness equipped with camera mounts. 

At the time, Jorgen Ree Wiig, a marine biologist told CNN, “The whale seemed playful but our instincts said that it was also asking for help to get out of the harness,” adding that officials suspected the whale had come from Russia since the Russian navy has “been known to train belugas to conduct military operations before.”

Belugas have been trained in the past to guard naval bases, assist divers and find lost equipment. They were also used during the cold war to identify mines and torpedoes.

Researchers are confident that the whale has been trained, as it willingly approached boats and opened its mouth, indicating it wanted to be fed as a reward.

The whale has been given the nickname “Hvaldimir” a mashup of the Norwegian word for “whale” and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first name. 

Authorities speculate that it may have managed to escape its marine pen before making its way to Norway in 2019. 

Hvaldimir made headlines in 2019 when it retrieved a cell phone a woman had dropped in the ocean.

The whale appeared off the southwest coast of Sweden on May 28, after traveling south along Norway’s coast and then sped up to traverse the southern half of Sweden’s coastline.

Sebastian Strand, a marine biologist with OneWhale told The Guardian, “We don’t know why he had sped up so fast right now,” and was puzzled why it was traveling “very quickly away from his natural environment.”

“It could be hormones driving him to find a mate. Or it could be loneliness, as belugas are a very social species – it could be that he’s searching for other beluga whales,” Strand speculated.

To date, the Kremlin has not acknowledged that Hvaldimir is its asset.