Whale Found With Harness May Have Escaped from Russian Navy

Courtesy Jorgen Wiig, Directorate of Fisheries' Marine Service

Published Apr 29, 2019 4:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

Last week, a beluga whale approached a group of fishermen off Ingøya, a small island in Norway's far north. This might not be unusual, except that the whale appeared to be tame and was wearing a harness with a GoPro mount.

After the fishermen reported the encounter, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries' Marine Service dispatched a boat team to meet the fishing vessel and free the whale from the harness. After several attempts, they managed to loosen one of the rig's clips, and the whale worked its way loose. The harness was recovered; one of its buckles was inscribed with markings suggesting that it had come from St. Petersburg.

"Equipment of St. Petersburg" (Courtesy Jorgen Wiig, Directorate of Fisheries' Marine Service / Motherboard)

Norwegian marine biologists think that it is likely that the whale escaped from a Russian Navy research program. "If this comes from Russia, and there is great reason to believe it, then it is not Russian scientists, but rather the navy that has done this," said Martin Biuw of the Institute of Marine Research, speaking to NRK. "I have colleagues here who put satellite tags on [beluga] whales, but they do not use this type of equipment. I have never seen anyone doing research this way."

Audun Rikardsen, a marine biologist with the Norwegian Arctic University, told media that his Russian contacts suspect that the whale likely came from Murmansk, the home of Russia's Northern Fleet. The cluster of bases surrounding Murmansk are about 250 nm to the east of Ingøya.

Now that it is free, the whale's odds of survival in the wild are less than perfect, according to Directorate of Fisheries marine biologist Jørgen Wiig, because it has been tamed and may not be well-equipped to fend for itself. 

Both Russia and the United States have experimented with militarizing marine mammals using training and special equipment. Russia denies that it engages in this practice; the U.S. Navy has conducted marine mammal training openly since the project's declassification in the 1990s, and it still maintains a training facility for dolphins and sea lions in San Diego.