A four metre long, tame beluga whale was trapped by Norwegian fishermen on 26 April off Rolvsoya on Norway’s northern coast. The whale was found to be wearing two harnesses, one of which had an attachment for a GoPro camera and a label linking the harness to Russia. The camera was missing. The whale had been following fishing boats for two days looking for food and the fishermen freed the whale from the harnesses as it appeared to be in distress.
Tensions are high between Norway and Russia along Norway’s Arctic coast. The recent trial and imprisonment of Norwegian citizen Frode Berg has done nothing to lessen that tension, In this atmosphere it is hardly surprising that there were immediate allegations that the Russian navy had been using the tame whale for spying purposes.
It is true that the Russian navy has experimented with using animals, including beluga whales, for espionage purposes. However, as Russian reserve colonel, Viktor Baranets, commented on Russian TV: “If we were using this animal for spying, do you really think we would attach a mobile phone number with the message ‘if found, please call this number’?”. Well, the answer is: “Yes, you might”. An intelligence service using an animal for espionage purposes usually wants to know where it has ended up if it goes missing. The usual tactic has been to claim that the animal was part of a zoological research programme. In a way, giving the animal an official number to call helps to act as a “cover story”.
However in the same interview, while denying this incident, Baranets confirmed that the Russian navy does indeed use marine animals in security and reconnaissance work. He cited the use of dolphins that have been trained to attack enemy divers or plant magnetic mines on the hulls of ships. Elsewhere, the US Navy has admitted using dolphins in a similar role. Such dolphins have, on occasion, been fitted with GoPro-like cameras.
Belugas are intelligent and can be trained in a similar way to dolphins. It is likely that the whale escaped from a Russian scientific programme, whether military or not.