Suspected Russian Agent Whale 'Probably Escaped' From Naval Base
The Norwegian man who removed a harness from a whale suspected to have been trained by Russian military says it was an amazing opportunity to channel his inner Steve Irwin.
Marine biologist Jørgen Wiig was on his way to check on fisheries near the small fishing village of Inga, Norway, when he received a call about a whale incident nearby.
Trained to free whales from fishing gear, the crew were surprised when a short time later they realised the "incident" was actually an unusually friendly white beluga whale wearing a strange harness.
In an Australian exclusive, Wiig told 10 News First via Skype it was immediately obvious something was off when the whale swam straight up to the boat and began nudging the fishing vessel.
"I was thinking, when I saw the whale, yeah it's this beautiful animal, it's a white whale and that's something I really like to see," he said.
"And then I see it has this harness on it, that's totally wrong. It's this wild whale that's supposed to live in pristine waters of the Arctic and then you have this human-made thing on it."
The behaviour of the whale -- which was clearly comfortable around humans -- and the seemingly purpose-built harness wrapped just below its head, raised suspicions the animal had been trained by Russia's military.
Russia operates a military base in the region around Murmansk, at the northern tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and has a history of utilising marine animals for naval intelligence programs.
Wiig and accompanying fisherman were quick to get to work removing the harness, which he said included brackets for possibly mounting cameras on each side of the whale.
"It was really hard to get the harness off," Wiig said.
"Our main mission was to remove the harness and help the whale because it seemed like the whale wanted help, and when we got it off we started cheering."
On the harness' clip were the words "Equipment St. Petersburg", further alluding to Russian training.
"I sent an email to some whaling researchers that I know that are beluga experts and they sent an email to somebody in Russia," Wiig said.
"The Russian scientists said this isn't science experiments, it's something they do in the naval base and this whale has probably escaped or something."
Wiig speculated the whales may aid navy divers, helping them to retrieve things from the seafloor or to even guard naval bases, but he doubts the animal was used for espionage.
"It's only the Russian military imagination that can tell what can and can't be done."
While the concept of Russian-trained marine animals seems perhaps slightly unusual -- dare we say, fascinating -- to most of us, Wiig's recount of the event remains largely focused on the opportunity to lend a helping fin.
"It was really nice to help an animal in need and it's something like you always see in the TV show and always saw when I was a kid," he said.
"Like you see Steve Irwin and other people helping animals, to be able to do the same myself was a really good feeling."
As for what's become of the now former Russian agent, Wiig says the whale seems to have made quite a happy home of his Norwegian surroundings, continuing to swim close to nearby villages.
"I heard there was a girl that made a toy for it," he said.
"And they can feed it fish and everything. It's close to this fishery harbour and its probably going to be there for a while."