Beluga whales are cute, intelligent, and friendly – everything you would want in a spy.
That’s what Norwegian officials suspect after a beluga whale wearing a harness that read “Equipment of St. Petersburg” written on a strap was seen by fisherman in Arctic Norway last week. The animal allowed fisherman to pet it.
The Associated Press reported the harness also had a camera mount on it, and officials speculated that the whale came from a Russian military facility. The outlet spoke to Audun Rikardsen, a professor at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsoe, who said the whale “is most likely that Russian Navy in Murmansk.” The AP reported that the Russian military has facilities in Murmansk.
"This is a tame animal that is used to get food served so that is why it has made contacts with the fishermen," Rikardsen said. "The question is now whether it can survive by finding food by itself. We have seen cases where other whales that have been in Russian captivity doing fine."
To be clear: There is no evidence this animal is actually a Russian spy. Rikardsen told ABC that scholars in Russia and Norway haven’t reported any program to train and utilize beluga whales for military purposes.
There’s also little evidence that Norwegian officials really believe the whale is an agent of Russia. The AP spoke to Jeorgen Ree Wiig from the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, who said “people in Norway’s military have shown great interest” in the harness that was strapped to the whale.
The idea that the whale is some sort of trained spy likely comes from the Soviet Union’s past use of dolphins for military purposes. During the Cold War, the dolphins were trained to find underwater mines and to plant explosives, the AP reported. A base near Sevastopol in Crimea was used to train the animals, but was closed when the Soviet Union collapsed.
In 2000, the BBC reported that “dolphins trained to kill for the Soviet navy” were sold to Iran for undisclosed purposes. The trainer who had been caring for the animals said he had no more food or medicine for them. Animals other than the trained dolphins were also sent to Iran. The BBC reported at the time that a beluga whale was also among the animals sold — and had been trained “to attack enemy frogmen with harpoons attached to their backs, or to drag them to the surface to be taken into captivity.”
“They could also undertake kamikaze strikes against enemy shipping carrying mines that would explode a ship on contact with its hull,” the BBC reported.
The Associated Press also reported that Russian military officials sought five dolphins for “a training program” several years ago.
“The Russian Defense Ministry published a public tender in 2016 to purchase five dolphins for a training program. The tender did not explain what tasks the dolphins were supposed to perform, but indicated they were supposed to have good teeth. It was taken offline shortly after publication,” the AP reported.
The United States has also used dolphins for military purposes, such as rescuing lost swimmers.