A beluga whale was discovered with a harness around its body that apparently was Russian-made, sparking alarm from Norwegian officials that the animal escaped a military facility in Russia, according to reports on April 29.
Joergen Ree Wiig, a marine biologist from the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, said that “Equipment St. Petersburg” was written on the harness, ABC News reported. The harness featured a mount for a camera.
“I have been in contact with some Russian researchers and they can confirm that there is nothing they are doing,” Audun Rikardsen of Norwegian Arctic University said, according to New Scientist.
— National Post (@nationalpost) April 29, 2019
He said the beluga is “most likely” from the “Russian Navy in Murmansk.”
The whale was approaching boats and trying to rub off the straps, according to the publication. A fisherman then went into the water and took off the harness.
Wiig said the whale exhibited behavior that suggested it had been in captivity for a while.
This beluga whale which was spotted off Norway’s coast could belong to the Russian navy.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) April 29, 2019
“It was very used to people, so I do not know if it will manage alone,” Wiig said, according to New Scientist.
The United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries have used beluga whales or dolphins for military purposes. Moscow used dolphins during the Cold War to plant bombs and detect abandoned ships. The U.S. Navy said it has trained “bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to detect, locate, mark and recover objects in harbors, coastal areas, and at depth in the open sea.”
Rikardsen said the beluga “is a tame animal that is used to get food served so that is why it has made contacts with the fishermen,” The Associated Press reported.
— Towleroad (@tlrd) April 29, 2019
“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,” he said.
According to BBC, Rikardsen added that the harness “was attached really tightly around its head, in front of its pectoral fins and it had clips,” saying that a GoPro could be attached there.
Col. Viktor Baranets, a Russian reserve colonel, said that it could have escaped from the Russian navy.
“We have military dolphins for combat roles, we don’t cover that up,” he told the BBC. “In Sevastopol (in Crimea) we have a center for military dolphins, trained to solve various tasks, from analyzing the seabed to protecting a stretch of water, killing foreign divers, attaching mines to the hulls of foreign ships.”
The Soviet Union used a base in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula during the Cold War to train the mammals for military purposes such as searching for mines or other objects and planting explosives. The facility in Crimea was closed following the collapse of the Soviet Union, though unnamed reports shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea indicated that it had reopened.
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 Associated Press contributed to this report.