Recently, a viral video surfaced of a beluga whale playing fetch with a rugby ball, garnering over 100,000 retweets and 400,000 likes on Twitter. Many people replied saying they found the video heartwarming and wished that their own dogs could play fetch as well as that beluga did. However, there is a lot more to the story than it appears at first glance as that innocent looking is suspected to be a lost spy belonging to the Russian military.
After seeing the video, some Internet sleuths connected it to a video of a malnourished and injured beluga seeking attention and food when he was first spotted on April 26, 2019 in Finnmark, Norway. He was discovered with a harness that had a camera mount and was labeled “Equipment of St. Petersburg.” Based on the geographical location and the conditions he was found in, many thought that the beluga was a trained animal spy from Russia. The Norweigan public broadcaster decided to name the whale “Hval” meaning whale in Norweigian and “dimir” in reference to the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Hvaldimir was slowly introduced back into its natural habitat by a team that was largely funded by the community where he was first discovered. For the last couple of months, he has kept a low-profile surviving in the wild. However, he was back in the spotlight when a video of him playing fetch with a fisherman went viral.
If Hvaldimir is indeed a Russian spy, then he isn’t the only one. Turns out, Russia and other governments including the United States have an extensive history of training sea mammals, dating all the way back to the Cold War. Dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, orcas, and belugas have all been trained for military purposes. They can be trained to perform similar tasks that a dog can on land due to their sensory and physical abilities. These jobs range from retrieving lost equipment, detecting and locating mines or dangerous items on the ocean floor, and rescuing naval swimmers.
While Russia’s program has been very secretive, it is well-known that the US has been operating programs to train marine mammals for military use. The American program is public and is called the US Navy Marine Mammal Program. This initiative started in 1959 and the US Navy trained dolphins and sea lions to help guard against amphibious threats in Point Loma located in San Diego, California, and have been very successful with these animals.
A prime example of this success would be the use of the Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins at an Iraqi Port. In March 2003, they were used to search for underwater mines that might be on the premises. The US-led Coalition was ready to send much needed humanitarian aid shipments to the city of Umm Qasr which had just been secured. This was one of the largest recorded uses of the sea mammals in action and proved its worth by verifying that there were no underwater mines in the port thus ensuring the safety of the Coalition.
While the animals have been proven useful for military applications, the treatment and the living conditions that these animals are in have been a major concern for many. In the late 1980s, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society successfully sued the US Navy and prevented them from using dolphins sentries at a submarine base in Washington state. Animal rights organizations have also been protesting the US deployment of dolphins in the Persian Gulf.
In order for these animals to be trained they require constant interactions with humans, becoming reliant on them and unfamiliar with their own kind. If they escape or get released back into the wild they will severely struggle to survive. Hvaldimir was one of these cases. Despite efforts to reintroduce him to the wild, he has been unable to join a pod and spends all his time in contact with humans. For example, he frequently approaches boats and even returned an iPhone to a woman who dropped it in the ocean. Unfortunately contact with humans is not always safe for Hvaldmir who has also been injured by propellers and jabbed in the mouth with mops.
This change in the animal’s behaviour starts with training them for war, which of course, is even more dangerous. “It is not ethical to put animals in harm’s way,” The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has said. “War is a human endeavor, and while people and political parties may decide war is necessary, animals cannot.”
Image Credit: Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries