A marine biologist swims with the ‘Russian spy whale’

“I was most struck by his friendliness—and his loneliness,” says Audun Rikardsen.

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Friendly and clearly accustomed to humans, this beluga whale showed up off the coast of northern Norway, then made its way to a town’s harbor where its feedings became a show for locals and tourists.
This story appears in the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

A fisherman I know named Joar Hesten called me late in April 2019. A beluga whale was swimming around his boat near the northern tip of Norway. It appeared to be wrapped in a tight harness, and Hesten didn’t know what to do. Belugas are usually found in pods in areas with ice and glaciers—rarely alone along the Norwegian coast. As a marine biologist, I knew that the harness needed to be removed as soon as possible. I had no idea how puzzling it would turn out to be.

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We contacted the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries Sea Surveillance Service. When inspector Jørgen Ree Wiig and his crew rendezvoused with the fishing boat, the nearly 12-foot-long male eagerly engaged with them. He’d clearly been trained.

The mystery deepened when Hesten got into the water to remove the harness. Attached to the strap were a camera mount and clips with the words (in English) “Equipment St. Petersburg.” The contraption didn’t look like anything that a scientist would use to track whales.

The rescuers and I wondered whether he’d been trained by the Russian military. The media took that speculation further, dubbing him the “Russian spy whale.” One outlet christened him Hvaldimir—a play on hval, the Norwegian word for “whale,” and the first name of Russian president Vladimir Putin. (Read more about military whales and dolphins.)

A week after his discovery, Hvaldimir followed a sailboat to Hammerfest harbor, about 25 miles from where he was first spotted. That’s where I photographed him in early May. I had traveled to Hammerfest to determine his physical condition. He was thin: He wasn’t eating on his own and seemed unlikely to survive in the wild. Later the authorities decided to feed him; his meals became daily tourist attractions in Hammerfest.

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Hvaldimir became so popular in Hammerfest that rules had to be posted for interacting with him.

Yet when I slipped into the water in my snorkel gear to examine Hvaldimir, I was most struck by his friendliness—and his loneliness. During our swim together, Hvaldimir pulled off one of my flippers, which sank into the deep. I shouted to him underwater, and he dived for it. A few minutes later, he returned with my flipper balanced on his snout and presented it to me. His former trainers, whoever they were, must have treated him well.

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Photographer Audun Rikardsen was able to take this underwater portrait of Hvaldimir in Hammerfest when he swam away from the dock and the whale followed him.

Training such a whale is expensive and time-consuming, yet no one claimed him. The Norwegian Police Security Service got on the case, and a German journalist used crowdsourcing to track the harness logo to an outdoor-equipment supplier in St. Petersburg. A trusted source told me that Hvaldimir had indeed escaped from a Russian Navy program in Murmansk. My source didn’t reveal what the beluga had been trained to do.

In June Hvaldimir left Hammerfest, in much better shape than when he arrived. Since then he has traveled along the coast of northern Norway, apparently feeding himself. During the polar night, he swam in fjords near whale-watching and fishing vessels. Those waters are patrolled by hundreds of killer whales—potential predators.

Many people have opinions about what to do with Hvaldimir. Should the lone whale be placed in a dolphinarium, moved to a beluga habitat, or just left to himself? So far, he seems to be doing fine on his own.

Audun Rikardsen is a nature photographer and a professor of freshwater and marine biology at UiT—the Arctic University of Norway. Previously he wrote about losing his camera to a polar bear.