Beluga whale found in Norway waters a 'Russian-trained spy'?

The whale wearing a harness with the text "Equipment St. Petersburg" printed on the plastic clasps was discovered off the coast of northern Norway.
The whale wearing a harness with the text "Equipment St. Petersburg" printed on the plastic clasps was discovered off the coast of northern Norway.PHOTO: NORWEGIAN DIRECTORATE FISHERIES

OSLO • A spy, a faraway visitor or a fugitive on the run? A mysterious Beluga whale, caught wearing a suspicious harness, has ignited the imagination of Norwegians.

But more than a week after the mammal was first spotted by fishermen in the Arctic waters off the coast of northern Norway, its origin remains unknown.

Mr Jorgen Ree Wiig, a marine biologist working with the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, tracked down the whale with the help of a fisherman and two colleagues on April 26. They managed to remove an obviously man-made harness attached to it.

The harness had a mount suited for an action camera and the text "Equipment St. Petersburg" printed on the plastic clasps.

Mr Wiig said on Friday he believed the whale could have come from neighbouring Russia, where it might have escaped an enclosure. "The whale is so calm around humans and goes up to boats, so it seems to have been accustomed to humans," he said.

Another theory supported by Mr Wiig was that the whale could have been trained by the Russian navy. The whale's ease with humans and the markings on the harness, together with reports of the Russian Navy training Beluga whales, has led many to speculate that it could be a "Russian spy".

Moscow has not issued any official reaction but an officer quoted by the media has mocked the idea, arguing that the military would not be stupid enough to "leave their phone number" on an animal trained for clandestine activities.

The Barents Sea is a strategic geopolitical area where Western and Russian submarine movements are monitored. It is the gateway to the Northern Route that shortens maritime routes between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Mr Dmitry Glazov, a scientist at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Russian news agency Interfax the Russian Navy had programmes involving whales.

"It is a fact that the military has these animals. Among other things, they used them during the Sochi Olympics," Mr Glazov said.

The harness has been transferred to the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST), but its communications officer Martin Bernsen said it was unclear whether it would find anything.

"We must admit that examining technical equipment attached to whales is not a daily occurrence for PST," he said. "The whale is not a suspect in our investigation, for now."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 05, 2019, with the headline 'Beluga whale found in Norway waters a 'Russian-trained spy'?'. Print Edition | Subscribe