A marine biologist swims with the ‘Russian spy whale’

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

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.

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.

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.

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