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Beluga whale with harness

At the Norwegian coast, a white whale with a harness has attracted international media coverage. The animal appeared to have been trained, marine scientist Martin Biuw explains in this article.

Last week, fishermen in Finnmark in Northern Norway discovered a beluga whale that was initially believed to be entangled in fishing gear or some other flotsam. The whale did not seem to avoid the fishing boats, but rather appeared to seek them out.

Local TV obtained still and video footage which they showed to marine mammal researchers in Tromsø, who suggested that the rubbish was actually a harness that had been deliberately fitted to the whale. This was further supported by the video footage, which showed the whale actively approaching the fishing boats, swimming alongside them for long periods.

Freed from the harness

One researcher at the Institute of Marine Research contacted the Directorate of Fisheries in Norway, tasked with freeing entangled whales. Since the animal appeared to have been trained, the researcher suggested that they try to lure the whale with some fish, in order to get close enough to free it from the harness.

Together with the local fishermen who initially discovered the whale, the Directorate did exactly that, and managed to free the whale and recover the harness, which had a label reading ‘Equipment of St Petersburg’. Where the whale originally came from, who trained it and for which purpose remains a mystery, but the label suggests it had swam across from Russian waters.

While there have been wild speculations in the media that this whale has been sent by the Russian Navy on some covert operation, the most likely explanation for its appearance in Norway may be that it was somehow separated from its trainers during an open-water training session.

Arctic species

The beluga, or white whale (Delphinapterus leucas), is an arctic species that is frequently found in coastal regions, or in close association with the ice edge throughout the Arctic. They are a mid-sized toothed whale reaching lengths of 4–4.5 metres and weights of 1,200-1,500 kg.

Unlike most cetaceans, belugas have flexible necks and can turn their heads to inspect its surroundings, most importantly using sound created in the airways and projected forward through the bulbous ‘melon’ at the front of the head.

Belugas are virtually circumpolar, but are almost absent in the Greenland Sea to the east of Greenland. There is a small population in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada, and they are very common around Svalbard and along the arctic coast of Russia. The global population size is unknown, but is believed number around 200000 animals. There is a subsistence hunt for belugas in Alaska, northeastern Canada and Greenland, and until recently they were commercially harvested in the White Sea, Russia.

Beluga whales have previously been a common occurrence in Aquariums around the world, but animal welfare concerns have led to a ban in the capture and import of belugas for such purposes. The only place where belugas are still captured alive for export is in the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia.