ENVIRONMENT

Beluga Playing Fetch In Viral Video Confirmed To Be So-Called 'Russian Spy Whale'

A whale filmed playing with a rugby ball is Hvaldimir, the beluga in Norway some speculate escaped from the Russian military.

A beluga playing with a rugby ball in a viral video earlier this month has been confirmed to be Hvaldimir, a whale spotted near Norway in April and suspected by some of escaping the Russian military.

“Yes, we can officially confirm it is Hvaldimir,” said a statement to HuffPost from the Hvaldimir Foundation, an initiative of the nonprofit Norwegian Orca Survey dedicated to monitoring the famous Hvaldimir (although he is not an orca).

The viral video shows a person leaning over the side of a boat and tossing a rugby ball in the general direction of a beluga whale. The whale then brings back the ball as someone can be heard saying, “That’s crazy, yeah?”

It’s not immediately clear who originally posted the video, which has been reposted numerous times on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

Some scientists and science journalists who saw the video immediately suspected the beluga was Hvaldimir, who has been observed retrieving objects dropped by humans before.

And while some people claimed the video had been shot in Antarctica, biologist Jackie Hilderling determined it was likely filmed on a boat currently in Norwegian waters. (She also pointed out that belugas only live in Arctic seas, making it next-to-impossible the video was filmed in Antarctica.)

Hvaldimir first made international headlines earlier this year after he approached fisherman near Hammerfest, Norway. The whale was wearing a tight harness that featured a camera mount and had the words “Equipment St. Petersburg” on it.

Linn Saether poses with Hvaldimir days after a fisherman removed a harness with a camera mount from the beluga whale, in Tufj
Linn Saether poses with Hvaldimir days after a fisherman removed a harness with a camera mount from the beluga whale, in Tufjord, Norway.

The harness immediately fueled speculation that that beluga had escaped from some sort of Russian naval training facility, and he became widely known in the media as the “Russian spy whale.” That speculation also led to him being called Hvaldimir, a portmanteau of the Norwegian word for whale (“hval”) and Vladimir, as in Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, there is no hard evidence that Hvaldimir is a Russian Navy escapee, much less a spy whale. Back in April, retired Russian Col. Viktor Baranets conjectured that if the whale were really a spy, his harness probably wouldn’t have been labeled like that.

“If we were using this animal for spying do you really think we’d attach a mobile phone number with the message ‘please call this number’?” he told Russian broadcaster Govorit Moskva, per the BBC. Baranets added that Russia does train “military dolphins,” but it doesn’t keep that program a secret.

Baranets also told Reuters he’d heard that Russian scientists used beluga whales “for tasks of civil information gathering.”

But while the beluga’s exact origin remains a mystery, experts are confident that Hvaldimir was previously in captivity and that his learned dependence on people is likely why he was malnourished when first spotted. That’s why the Norwegian Orca Survey authorized a feeding plan in May to help get the beluga’s weight stabilized.

“The ultimate goal and hope was for Hvaldimir to be able to hunt and remain in the wild without any human interaction,” said the Hvaldimir Foundation statement. Hvaldimir is currently “showing signs that he is hunting for himself,” but researchers are continuing to keep track of his sightings.

The organization also urged anyone who comes across Hvaldimir to “respect his space.” Encouraging him to get too close to humans could “damage all of our efforts” to help him reintegrate into the wild, the group said.

In the meantime, the Hvaldimir Foundation has been posting updates of Hvaldimir sightings on Facebook.

“We are happy to report that he demonstrates a positive trend in weight gain and his attitude and behavior seem to indicate an increased confidence as he navigates the fjords of Norway,” reads a post from late October. “Stay safe out there, Buddy!”

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