Watch: The beluga whale that Russia could be training for naval duty

Killer whale?
Killer whale?
Image: Screenshot via Joergen Ree Wiig via Associated Press
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A beluga whale spotted by a fisherman in Norway over the weekend could have been trained by the Russian navy, a marine biologist says.

Joar Hesten, 26, sent pictures of the whale to Audun Rikardsen, a marine biologist at the Norwegian Arctic University in Tromsø. “We were going to put out nets when we saw a whale swimming between the boats,” Hesten told Norwegian media (link in Norwegian).“It came over to us, and as it approached, we saw that it had some sort of harness on it.”

A team from Norway’s Directorate of Fisheries arrived on the scene and was able to attract the whale with cod fillets. Hesten jumped into the water and removed the harness, which had the words “Equipment of St. Petersburg” written on it, according to Joergen Ree Wiig of the Norwegian fisheries directorate. Attached to the harness was a GoPro camera mount, minus the camera.

“I have been in contact with some Russian researchers and they can confirm that there is nothing they are doing,” Rikardsen told Norwegian newspaper VG. “They tell me that most likely is the Russian navy in Murmansk.”

Russian officials have not commented. Warren Duffie, a spokesman for the US Office of Naval Research, tells Quartz the Navy “has no official knowledge of this and cannot comment or speculate on it.”

The Kremlin attempted to use small whales and dolphins as strategic assets from the 1960s into the ’80s, says Jan Neumann, a former member of Russia’s intelligence services who defected to the US a decade ago. “The Soviet Union and the US were doing this type of research simultaneously,” Neumann tells Quartz. “The idea was to detect and/or kill saboteurs, frogmen, combat swimmers, protect naval installations and ports, and destroy foreign ships, submarines, mines, and so forth.”

The US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program has existed in one form or another since 1959 It uses sea lions to locate and attach recovery lines to Navy equipment on the sea floor. The dolphins are used to seek out underwater mines. Both are used in “detecting and apprehending unauthorized swimmers and divers that might attempt to harm the Navy’s people, vessels, or harbor facilities,” the Navy says.

A 1976 CIA briefing document, now declassified, says the Soviets made dolphin research the responsibility of the Soviet State Committee for Science and Technology in 1965.

“The abilities of marine mammals can be ‘shaped’ for operational purposes,” it explains, noting that dolphins and whales have also been trained to “place instrument packages on moving or stationary targets, and to carry tools, lines and objects from the surface to divers and between submerged divers.”

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The Soviet program had trouble at first because it couldn’t capture and transport the dolphins without harming them. The “inexperienced navy conscripts” being used to train the dolphins didn’t help matters, the CIA saidOK?, nor did the inadequately thawed frozen fish they were being fed, which can lead to fatal stomach disorders.

Russian officials have publicly denied using marine mammals for military purposes. However, the country’s defense ministry issued a solicitation in 2016 seeking five bottlenose dolphins with strong teeth and good “motor activity.”

Dolphins and seals are more comfortable in cold waters and have a higher level of “professionalism” than beluga whales, which don’t have the same keen memories, according to Russian scientists who attempted in 2017 to train marine mammals to guard naval bases and “assist deepwater divers and if necessary kill any strangers who enter their territory.”

The seals, specifically, were “very strong with good guarding reactions,” said a report from TV Zvezda, which is owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense. “Even after a one-year break in training the seal will keep all oral commands in its memory.”