This famous ‘spy whale' likes people. That could be a problem

Hvaldimir, a beluga whale, has been swimming in the wrong direction and may be lost.

This famous ‘spy whale' likes people. That could be a problem

Hvaldimir is a domesticated, beluga-whale that has been seen in Scandinavian waters since years. He was spotted last week, off the coasts of Sweden. This prompted concern among scientists who fear he may be in danger.

If people do not stay away from him.

In 2019, the highly social whale gained his first fame when he appeared in northern Norway with a harness embossed with "St Petersburg equipment" that looked like it was designed to hold an underwater camera. He captured the attention of journalists who labeled him as a Russian spy.

Hvaldimir is a different whale from the rest. Its name is a combination between 'hval,' which is the Norwegian word meaning whale, and Vladimir. He seemed to prefer humans to other marine mammal species, which led researchers to believe that he was domesticated.

Researchers say it is impossible to tell for certain if Hvaldimir was a spy-whale. No country has claimed Hvaldimir. Militaries use animals for a long time, and during the Cold War the Soviet navy used dolphins to train them as military weapons. The US Navy trained belugas to search for underwater mines and perform recovery operations.

Hvaldimir's harness, which a Norwegian fisherman removed, could have been used to carry cameras or other tools. Eve Jourdain is a Norwegian marine biologist who began a feeding program to save Hvaldimir.

Regina Crosby Haug is the founder of OneWhale. This crowdfunded organization is dedicated to Hvaldimir’s well-being.

Scientists have been wondering why Hvaldimir is moving south after he was recently seen in the Swedish waters. Photo / OneWhale, Rich German via The New York Times

Researchers are hesitant to confirm Hvaldimir as a spy. Martin Biuw is a marine mammal researcher at Norway's Institute of Marine Research.

Hvaldimir seems to be in a state of confusion and is swimming in the opposite direction. And observers are unsure about what to do with him.

Hvaldimir, who has been regularly seen in Norwegian waters since 2019, was spotted last week near the Swedish coast in a small village. Scientists, activists, and other experts are concerned that his southward journey could be a sign that he is running out of food, or that he might face danger as the summer approaches. Belugas normally live in the Arctic. Researchers said that Hvaldimir was injured in the past by bumping against boats and propellers.

This case brings to mind Freya, the walrus that weighed 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) and was killed last summer by Norwegian authorities after they determined she was a danger to people watching. Hvaldimir will not do what Freya did: he won't wreck boats or lounge on decks in the sun.

Researchers report that neither the Norwegian nor Swedish governments have announced plans to interfere with Hvaldimir’s travels, or to send him back to his native Arctic. Researchers say that the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries did not respond immediately to a comment request.

Jourdain said that she visited Hvaldimir recently to check on him. She said, 'He looked fantastic'. But that doesn't necessarily mean that his condition isn’t declining.

Hvaldimir was previously injured after bumping into boats. Photo / Rich German via The New York Times

She said that her main concern is Hvaldimir not getting enough food. Jourdain stated that she had no idea of what Hvaldimir was eating or if it was enough.

Hvaldimir's move south is not clear. It's possible that he is searching for a partner as a young man. He may also be looking for food. Anna Bisther is a marine scientist who worked with killer whales.

Jourdain stated: "He is an Arctic whale. He's not supposed to travel south. He is a mysterious creature.

This is not the first instance a beluga has found itself in a dangerous and unknown area. A malnourished beluga that was stranded on the Seine River in Paris in August 2022 had to be euthanized after it struggled to breathe while being taken out of the river to try and return the animal back to the sea. In London, a beluga appeared in the River Thames on September 2018.

Hvaldimir is also in a similar situation. It could be dangerous to send him to live in the Arctic with other belugas, as he's not used to the wild.

Haug says that other belugas will probably welcome him because they are social animals. However, the Arctic has predators such as orcas.

Haug stated that he did not want to send a whale that was tame and didn't know better to the orcas.

Beluga whales, which number around 150,000 worldwide, are not interested in humans as food. Hvaldimir is estimated to weigh 3000 pounds and be 14 feet long (4.2 metres).

Jourdain warned, 'Do no invade his space. He can be dangerous if that is what he wants.' "And we already know the outcome."

This article was originally published in

The New York Times


Written by: Claire Moses