A beluga whale in a Russian harness — believed to be a Russian spy whale — is refusing to leave a port city in Norway, in what the Washington Post is calling “a high-profile defection after a week of attention” on the creature.
The beluga was the first thing Norwegian directorate of fisheries official Jorgan Ree Wiig saw outside the window of his patrol ship one morning last week, according to the Post.
The whale was first spotted by Norwegian fishermen last week, when they noticed that the whale defied normal behavior by persistently harassing their boats. The fishermen subsequently spotted a strange harness wrapped around the whale’s body.
Watch a video showing men on a boat feeding the dolphin fish and patting its head here:
Speaking from the city of Hammerfest, Wiig said an inscription on the harness they later recovered read “Equipment St. Petersburg.” He said he had handed the harness over to Norway’s Police Security Service.
The whale had moved only about 25 nautical miles within the last week and appeared to enjoy the proximity to humans, which he said was strange for a beluga.
Contrary to the species’ normal behavior, the beluga has allowed residents to pet its nose over the last few days. Even though white belugas are social animals and often gather in groups, they normally are extremely shy when approached by humans or other animals, and usually make a quick escape.
Since at least the 1960s, the U.S. Navy and other navies around the world have incorporated marine mammals into some aspects of defense and military activities, Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told National Public Radio.
Its dolphin and sea lion recruits are used to locate sea mines, retrieve objects from the ocean floor and gather intelligence for military divers, according to the Washington Post. They are not, however, involved in offensive operations.
In a statement to The Washington Post on Friday, the PST offered a rare confirmation, saying that “the harness is currently in our possession.”
“We must admit that examining technical equipment attached to whales is not a daily occurrence for PST. It is unclear if we will find anything,” said Martin Bernsen, a PST communications adviser. But he offered this reassurance to the beluga’s rapidly growing fan base: “The whale is not a suspect in our investigation, for now.”
Researchers say the harness could have carried weapons or cameras, triggering fresh speculation about a sea mammal special operations program that the Russian navy is believed to have been pursuing for years.
Although the Russian Defense Ministry has denied the existence of such a program, the same ministry published an ad in 2016 seeking three male and two female bottlenose dolphins and offering a total of $24,000.
Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, there have been “creepy reminders” of the Kremlin’s massive military apparatus lurking on Europe’s eastern outskirts: mystery submarines; unidentified jets, including one that almost collided with a passenger plane; and strange troop movements, the Post said.
Now Norway is trying to figure out what to do with the beluga.
One option, Wiig said, was to transport the animal to a sanctuary in Iceland, about 1,250 miles from Hammerfest. That may increase the chances for “the survival of the whale.”