'Cute' Story Of Community Taking In Whale Not As Sweet As It Seems
A beluga whale suspected to be a trained militant spy appears to have defected to Norway, interacting regularly with locals and refusing to leave a port city's waters.
Discovered by Norwegian fisherman early last week, the white whale quickly came to international attention because of the unusual circumstances it was found in and its possible Russian military links.
Marine experts in Norway initially speculated the animal was trained as part of a specialist program in the Russian navy due to a specially fitted harness which the group of men removed.
The harness -- which was engraved with the words "Equipment St. Petersburg" -- and the whale's comfortable behaviour around humans, formed the basis of the naval theory.
Now, the whale won't leave the waters near the city of Hammerfest, close to where it was found.
Videos of the animal letting people pat it on the nose and even retrieving a mobile phone from the water have begun to circulate on social media.
One video, uploaded to YouTube, shows the beluga spinning around, following instruction from a woman standing on a dock.
According to local Linn Sæther, the whale has been performing leaps and even retrieving plastic rings before swimming up to the dock as if looking for a reward.
“He’s so comfortable with people that when you call him he comes right up to you,” she told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.
“It’s clearly used to being given tasks and having something to do... You can see it’s been trained to fetch and bring back whatever is thrown for it.”
Speaking to 10 News First shortly after removing the whale's harness, Marine biologist and Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries official Jørgen Wiig said he thought the animal was "probably going to be there for a while", already being fed by locals and seeming to enjoy itself.
"I heard there was a girl that made a toy for it," he said.
The videos and selfies are by all accounts adorable and given the opportunity, most people wouldn't pass up the opportunity to interact with a beautiful white beluga whale if it offered itself to them -- but for marine experts, the situation is raising bright red flags.
While beluga whales are inquisitive by nature, such friendly behaviour towards humans -- much less bringing back a dropped phone from the water -- is not at all typical in the species when wild.
"This animal appears to be seeking out human attention which is actually now becoming a major concern," marine biologist Doctor Vanessa Pirotta told 10 daily.
"I know a lot of the marine community around the world are concerned for this animal if it was under human care which it most likely was."
Russian military or not, Pirotta said wherever the whale has come from it would have likely been given a daily intake of monitored food to keep it healthy, whereas now it must fend for itself.
"Remember Free Willy, Keiko, the famous example here," she said.
Keiko was a male orca who played Willy in the 1993 film Free Willy.
The mammal had originally been captured off the coast of Iceland before being sold to one of the country's aquariums.
After being passed around Canada, Mexico and eventually being discovered by Warner Bros. Studio Keiko was released back into wild waters off Norway.
Sadly, due to his extended time in captivity, the animal was unable to adapt or survive on its own and died in 2003 from suspected pneumonia.
"It spent the majority of its life under human care, learning that humans were where it receives food, Pirotta said.
"And then to be retrained and distance itself from humans was a failed attempt, the animal went back to seeking out human attention and ultimately died as a result."
The question to be answered now is: who is responsible for the white beluga whale, currently flipping tricks for Norwegian locals?
Though 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, the country's defence ministry has denied running a sea mammal special operations programme.
Norway’s special police security agency (PST), which is examining the harness attached to the animal, has also not yet finished an investigation into where it came from.
With no specific source owning up to the whale's training, its future care remains uncertain.
"Does it come under Norwegian environmental care, which would be similar to how we protect whales and dolphins here in Australian waters?" Pirotta wondered.
"I would imagine there would be serious discussion right now as to how to try and resolve this issue."