A video showing a Beluga whale playing football with tourists went viral last week. It now appears that the whale most likely was Hvaldimir, a so-called Russian "spy whale" that has lived along the Arctic Norwegian coast since last spring.
The video shows a man in his winter gir throwing an American football off a boat, and a Beluga swimming to collect it and bring it back to the man.
The Beluga repeatedly catches the ball.
The video has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.
Not really, according to several scientists who have reacted strongly to the video.
The Beluga is most likely the malnutritional “Hvaldimir”, a Beluga escaped from Russian captivity, and the video is most likely taped off the Norwegian coast.
It is not yet clear who uploaded the video, however, it was originally claimed that South-African rugby fans had filmed and the entire event took place in Antarctica. However, scientists were quick to respond that Belugas do not live in Antarctica, only in the Arctic. Many also reacted as wild animals do not play rugby with people – in other words, a regular Beluga would not behave like that.
It then did not take long before many started suspecting that the whale on the video was in fact “Hvaldimir”. The Beluga appeared off the coast of Finnmark county, Norway, last April and sought contact with fishermen. It then wore a kind of harness with a GoPro element saying “St. Petersburg”.
That caused many to speculate that the Beluga had escaped Russian captivity. The Russian Armed Forces train Belugas. In May, the Barents Observer wrote that the refugee probably came from the secret naval defense base in Polyarny in northern Russia.
The whale was named “Hvaldimir” following a name competition at the Norwegian broadcaster NRK; a name playing on the Norwegian word for whale [hval] as well as “Vladimir”, from the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
No one has confirmed that Hvaldimir is the “Russian spy whale”, which was his name in the world’s news media. A retired Russian colonel who has previously written about the Russian navy’s use of ocean animals refuted the spy charges in an interview with Russian TV channel Govorit Moskva in April, according to BBC.
- If we were to use this whale to spy, do you really think we would attach a phone number with the message “please dial this number?”, Viktor Baranets said in the interview, referring to the harness the Beluga was wearing.
He confirmed that the Russian armed forces use trained Belugas, however, not secretly.
Worried about the whale
It is pretty certain that the Beluga has lived in captivity, given its willingness to seek contact with people. That is also why Norwegians who started following up Hvaldimir were worried that he should not be able to catch enough food himself.
The Norwegian NGO Norwegian Orca Survey therefore started feeding the Beluga last spring and also started monitoring the health of the whale. They also started the Hvaldimir Foundation. The foundation has now confirmed that it is indeed Hvaldimir who was caught on tape in the globally viral video.
In an email to High North News, the Hvaldimir Foundation writes that the organisation’s scientists last saw the Beluga in September, and that it then appeared to have started hunting by itself. They also write that they map where he is spotted by others and hope that people will leave him alone:
“We hope that people respect him and do not encourage him if he gets near their boat. This can hurt all the work we do to make sure Hvaldimir can reintegrate back to a life in the free”, the foundation’s spokesperson writes.
Many have reacted negatively to the playing with the whale on the video and argue that wild animals should be left alone. Being trained to meet people, it is difficult for Hvaldimir to protect himself. Last September, Norwegian authorities stated publicly that they requested people leave the popular Beluga alone. At the time, he was in the waters outside Alta, Norway, and was ill at the time, due to his being injured by too close encounters with everyone who wanted a piece of him.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.