A beluga whale found with a seemingly tight Russian harness raised the alarm of Norwegian officials and suggested that the animal could come from a Russian military structure.
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Joergen Ree Wiig of the Norwegian Fisheries Directorate states that "Equipment St. Petersburg" is written on the harness belt, which has a frame for an action camera.
He said that Monday's fishermen in Arctic Norway last week reported the domesticated white cetacean with a tight harness swimming around. On Friday, fisherman Joar Hesten, aided by Ree Wiig, jumped into the icy water to remove the harness.
Ree Wiig said "the people in the Norwegian military showed great interest" in the harness.
Audun Rikardsen, a professor in the Department of marine and arctic biology at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsoe, northern Norway, believes that "the Russian navy in Murmansk is very likely to be involved". Russia has important military facilities in Murmansk and surroundings on the Kola Peninsula, in the far northwest of Russia.
It was not immediately clear what the mammal was trained for, or whether it should have been part of any Russian military activity in the region.
Rikardsen said he consulted scholars in Russia and Norway and said he had not reported any programs or experiments using beluga whales.
"This is a domesticated animal that is used to get food served and that is why he made contact with fishermen," he said. "The question now is whether it can survive by finding food on its own, we have seen cases where other whales that have been in captivity in Russia are doing well."
Hesten told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK that the whale started rubbing his boat again when it was sighted for the first time.
Russia does not have a history of whale use for military purposes, but the Soviet Union has had a comprehensive training program for dolphins.
The Soviet Union used a base in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula during the Cold War to train mammals for military purposes such as finding mines or other objects and planting explosives. The structure in the Crimea was closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, although nameless relations shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea indicated that it had been reopened.
The Russian Ministry of Defense published a public tender in 2016 for the purchase of five dolphins for a training program. The tender did not explain what the dolphins should do, but indicated that they had to have good teeth. It was taken offline shortly after publication.