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Russian “Spy” is having a Whale of a Time

Young Beluga seen in Great South Bay

Russian Spy created something out of the ordinary. Since the dawn of time, people have being making use of animals’ capabilities and intelligence. We as a species have utilized all manners of species and benefitted from their unique abilities. Dogs were one of the first animals that we began domesticating. Early humans realized that dogs, or rather wolves at the time, could protect camps from predators in exchange for scraps. They also provided invaluable information when it came to hunting and tracking food. Now, they still remain as guardians of our homes as well as companions to snuggle with at night.

Other animals such as horses also had their uses. They made traveling from place to place easier as well as faster. Horses could travel a much more significant distance than humans could on foot before getting tired. Horses also offered humans the ability to carry loads with them. This meant that people could load up packing, hunting, and gathering supplies and spend more time out in the wild collecting necessities for their camp instead of having to return home each night at dusk. They were also able to carry more thanks to the horse’s ability to bear loads.

Even birds of prey were domesticated and used for their hunting abilities. A hawk could be trained to retrieve and bring back prey for their masters. They also offered some level of protection. Plus, they arguably looked incredibly badass perched on their master’s gloved hand. Other birds of course had their jobs such as carrier pigeons that delivered letters.

Given the history of our interactions with animals, it was hardly surprising when people began jumping to conclusions about a whale that showed up off of Norway’s northern coast. Unlike many of the beluga whales that frequent this area though, this one was sporting a harness complete with camera mounts. People immediately began assuming that this whale had a purpose. After all, it’s not like the whale woke up, thought about getting dressed, and decided that a camera harness was the outfit of the day; humans had to be responsible. Unfortunately, people jumped to the worst and arguably strangest conclusion: this whale was a Russian spy that was either sent on a mission or had had the great fortune of escaping its masters. But which was it and should we be worried?

Russia Spy is using Whales as Spies?

Spy camera in the back of a beluga's head

When it comes to Russia, we’ve all seen the memes. The country is nothing short of wacky and to be honest, nothing that comes from there really surprises us anymore. That’s why people were more shocked than surprised when marine experts suggested that the whale was part of a Russian military spy program. “The harness has definitely been specially made to fit this whale. You can also see mounts on the sides of the straps that are perfect for mounting GoPro cameras to. This sounds like something out of a bad Sci-Fi movie or any of the Austin Powers films, but it’s real; this whale is sitting right in front of us in the waters sporting a camera harness,” says Jorgen Ree Wiig who is a marine biologist at Norway’s Directorate of Fisheries.

Experts took a good long look at the harness as well before releasing their speculations. “We didn’t want to rile up the public for no reason. Obviously something weird is going on, but we didn’t want to make assumptions right off the bat without some kind of analysis,” Wiig said. Upon investigation, researchers discovered that the clips of the harness suggested that the equipment belonged to St. Petersburg. This led Wiig to speculate that the whale was being trained and utilized by Russia’s navy.

“They’ve been training belugas for some time; it’s no secret. These whales have been used to conduct a number of military operations before. They’ve been responsible for guarding bases, assisting divers, and retrieving equipment that’s been lost. They’re highly intelligent and can be easily trained,” Wiig continued.

Martin Bluw, who is a marine mammal researcher with Norway’s Institute of Marine Research, also agreed with Wiig for the most part. “This animal is trained; that’s undeniable. There’s no doubting that or arguing against it. However, what the purpose of the whale and its harness is certainly up for debate. Any suggestion of it being part of the Russian navy is pure speculation at this point. We can’t say for sure that it’s from there. We do know that during the Cold War the Russian military was in fact training belugas, but we can’t say for certain that this is one of theirs.” 

News outlets as well as Norway’s marine institution have reached out to Russian military bases, but so far they’ve remained unanswered. Researchers aren’t confident that anyone will step forward to explain the animal’s purpose, much less claim it. “We doubt that we’ll get any answers regarding the beluga whale,” Wiig said.

Not a spy, but a therapy whale

Russian scientists working on the White Whale Program place transmitters onto whales in Sea of Okhotsk

While many are sold on the notion that this whale is a spy, others remain largely unconvinced. “Just because it’s wearing a harness with camera mounts doesn’t mean it’s a spy. Sure, it looks suspect at first but if you actually think about it, it doesn’t make sense for the beluga to be some sort of spy defecting to friendlier waters. Instead, we think that the whale had a much more benign purpose.”

Fiskeribladet suggests that the reasons why the whale wears a harness and is super tame is not due to military training, but rather, the beluga was trained on how to work with children. One of the former journalists of the magazine came to that conclusion after comparing the beluga whale to Semyon, who was a therapy whale kept in northern Russia in a dive center. “I recognized him immediately,” said Morten Vikeby, Fiskeribladet’s former reporter. “He looked exactly like Semyon.” The reporter compared video footage of the beluga to the therapy whale playing with children and found that they looked identical. “They’re both demonstrating the same habits and quirks.”

But why the camera harness then? Vikeby has an answer for that as well. “The harness is attached because it is used to drag boats with children. The hooks aren’t for camera mounting, they’re for attaching to the bottom of the boat so that the whale can pull the children along. This is why he’s so social; he’s used to being around people and he’s used to ‘working’.”

Vikeby also takes it a step further but insinuating that this beluga whale is in fact Seymon. “I can’t say with absolute certainty that it’s the same animal, but the similarities are uncanny. They’re behaving in exactly the same whale; the video footage is nearly identical. If you had showed me the latter video and told me that it was Seymon, I wouldn’t have questioned it. They really do look and act the same.”

“He’s not a Russian spy at all but rather he’s a whale that just wants to be kind to everyone he meets.”

Living his best life

Beluga coming to the surface to eat

The beluga whale is right at home in the Norway waters and according to researchers, both the whale and the locals are loving his stay. While part of the whale’s draw is the fact that he’s somewhat of a celebrity, after all it’s not every day a potential Russian spy shows up in your local waters sporting a camera harness, but the whale is actually really fond of attention.

Tor Arild Guleng, who is a Hammerfest resident, told CNN that he was curious about the whale and set off to locate it. “Ever since I saw him on social media, I became really curious. For starters, I wanted to see the whale that everyone was talking about for myself. I also wanted to see that camera harness. Was social media just blowing it out of proportion or was it really a spy harness?.” Guleng was able to easily locate the beluga in fjord that was nearby. However, he got more than he bargained for.

For starters, he was extremely surprised by the animal’s reaction to him. Guleng said that the beluga swam excitedly towards his boat. Once it reached his boat, the beluga kept his head out of the water as if he was waiting for orders from Guleng. He did this for about 30 seconds. And as if that wasn’t strange enough, Guleng said the whale also followed the boat all the way back to Hammerfest where a crowd of people had gathered at the local port to see the whale.

The whale also seemed just as interested in the people as they were in him. People were able to feed the whale by hand; something that the beluga seemed to really enjoy. “He really liked all of the snacks and attention he was getting! He was happy to eat out of your hand. He wasn’t shy about it at all. You simply held out the fish or treat and he took it gently. It was a really unique experience,” said one of the locals. The Russian spy also danced in circles in the water for everyone’s amusement. “He looked a bit like a dolphin performing for a crowd. He was happy to get the attention.”

Videos also surfaced online of the beluga checking out a curious dog and then befriending it. “The dog was leaning over trying to smell him. The whale came closer and they checked each other out. The whale was really patient and moved slow; he didn’t scare the dog at all. It was so cool!”

Retrieving a phone

Beluga whales in an aquarium interacting with visitors

Videos of the whale flooded social media quickly and instantly went viral. People flocked around the whale and took turns filming and taking pictures of the Russian spy. Many filmed the whale via boat while others stood on shore or on the port for a chance to capture the Russian spy defector on camera. For one lucky resident, she got more than just some pictures and video.

Isa Odphal, like many others, had come to see the whale on Monday. She and her friends had headed out via boat from Hammerfest harbor in Norway. It didn’t take long for the beluga to head over to the boat and for the group to start taking pictures and videos. Unfortunately, Isa’s phone dropped into the icy waters of the ocean. Isa feared that her phone was gone forever when the whale did something that nobody expected: it dove after it.

Her friends were quick to capture the moment on video as well. “My phone slipped out of my hands and I remember thinking, ‘damn that sucks. There goes my phone, it’s gone forever. Then the whale suddenly just disappeared under the water. My friends and I were like, ‘is it really going after my phone? No way it’s going after it!’ But it definitely was. After a few moments, it surfaced with my phone its mouth. It was holding it really carefully and was offering it back to me. I was shocked! This whale is clearly very, very intelligent,” Isa said regarding the experience.

She also noted that she was able to take the phone from the whale’s mouth with relative ease. “It wasn’t holding onto it like a dog with a toy trying to play tug of war; the whale was really gentle and I easily took my phone back. My phone is definitely ruined, but that’s the fault of me and the ocean, not the whale.”

The beluga’s ability to not only locate and find the phone in the frigid waters but the fact that it knew to retrieve and bring it back has definitely increased people’s speculation that the whale is in fact a Russian spy.

A local celebrity

Tourist taking a picture in Front view of a Beluga whale

Unsurprisingly, the whale has become a local and social media celebrity. People are flocking from all over to catch a glimpse of the Russian defector and social media can’t get enough of him. This prompted NRK, a national broadcaster, to start a poll. In their poll, they requested their readers to come up with names for the beluga. So far, there have been more than 1,000 suggestions. “We only expect those numbers to increase. The poll hasn’t been active that long,” says NRK.

While there are ton of names flooding in, the fans definitely seem to have their favorites: Snow White, Agent James Beluga, and White Russian spy. “Those are the most popular submission that we’ve gotten so far. Many fans agree with them and others have suggested them as well. Personally, I’m hoping Agent James Beluga wins.”


As mentioned earlier, Wiig and Guleng don’t think they’ll find out the whale’s origins anytime soon. “Nobody’s really going to come forward and admit that they lost a whale; especially one used for spy purposes,” Guleng said. “So as far as I can tell, it’s here to stay. At least until we figure out better options for the whale or it finds somewhere else to go. We’re not holding him hostage; he can leave these waters at any time.”

However, this has drawn mixed feelings in the town of Hammerfest. Many people are super excited at the thought of having a tamed, interesting whale living in their waters. Others remain skeptical. “We don’t know if the whale even knows how to survive in the wild or if it can hunt. If this animal was part of the Russian spy military or whatever, it was likely confined to a small area and heavily monitored. It was probably fed and protected. I’m not sure we can offer the whale those same privileges here.” Guleng also sided with these people saying that the whale is definitely not a toy and reminded everyone that it is a sentient being with free will.

What are your thoughts?

As always, we’d like to know your thoughts on the piece. Do you believe that the friendly beluga whale is a Russian spy or do you think he’s Seymon the therapy whale? Do you have any other theories on what he could be? We also want to know how you think he ended up in the waters of Norway. Did he escape his facility and go on an adventure? Or did he simply decide that he needed a change of scenery? Let us know in the comment section below!

Vimal Lalani is senior correspondent for Ishli, Medical and Wellness unit, reporting breaking news and health consumer reporting on Ishli.com.

Written by Vimal Lalani

Vimal Lalani is senior correspondent for Ishli, Medical and Wellness unit, reporting breaking news and health consumer reporting on Ishli.com.

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