A beluga whale was found wearing what appeared to be a Russian-made harness by Norwegian fishermen last week, raising suspicions that it may be used by the Russian military.
The whale was discovered swimming near a village in Arctic Norway, the fishermen said.
“We were going to put out nets when we saw a whale swimming between the boats,” fisherman Joar Hesten told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, according to a translation by The Guardian. “It came over to us, and as it approached, we saw that it had some sort of harness on it.”
The harness, which was removed on Friday, featured a mount for a camera and read “Equipment St. Petersburg,” Joergen Ree Wiig of the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries told The Associated Press.
“People in Norway’s military have shown great interest” in the harness, Ree Wiig said.
Photos posted on Facebook by the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries on Saturday show the whale, the detached tan and blue harness, and a tool that was used to remove the harness.
Audun Rikardsen, a professor at the Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsoe, northern Norway, shared his belief with the AP that the Russian Navy, in the northwestern port city of Murmansk, is involved. Rikardsen said he has asked scholars in both Russia and Norway about programs or experiments using beluga whales but they have not heard of any.
Russia does not have a known history of using whales for military purposes, though the former Soviet Union had a training program for dolphins.
The animals, equipped with echolocation, have been used to locate underwater mines and find and rescue people from the water.
The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego currently trains bottlenose dolphins as well as sea lions “to detect, locate, mark and recover objects in harbors, coastal areas, and at depth in the open sea,” according to its website. This training has gone on since 1959.
In the 1970s, the Navy started to explore the use of beluga whales, which can go into deeper and colder depths than dolphins or sea lions, PBS’ Frontline reported.
In 2016, NBC reported that Russia’s Ministry of Defense requested to buy five bottlenose dolphins for an unknown reason. The dolphins were purchased and were to be delivered to Sevastopol in Crimea.