In mid-April, something strange happened to fishermen in Norway. A beluga whale swam right up to their boat, pulling at lines and acting like it owned the joint. While that in itself might be interesting, the beluga in question was outfitted with a harness.
“We were going to put out nets when we saw a whale swimming between the boats,” fisherman Joar Hesten told NRK Finnmark. “It came over to us, and as it approached, we saw that it had some sort of harness on it.”
So far, no one has been able to definitively say exactly where the strangely tame whale came from, but many are surmising that it likely escaped from a Russian Naval Base in northern Russia.
According to IFLScience, the whale seems to have been trained by humans—and probably by the Russian Navy as part of a program that uses underwater mammals as a kind of “special ops force.” The Guardian reported that the whale had been seen near many fishing boats in the area.
When the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries freed the whale from its harness, they found the words “Equipment of St. Petersburg” written on the inside.
“If this whale comes from Russia – and there is great reason to believe it – then it is not Russian scientists, but rather the navy that has done this,” said Martin Biuw of the Institute of Marine Research in Norway to The Guardian.
Way back in the 1980s, when Russia was still under the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the military started training dolphins and other marine mammals to do their dirty work. Apparently, they were primarily trained to detect weapons. Officially, that program ended in the early 1990s, but there have been numerous reports as recently as 2017 that they’re still doing it.
The Guardian reported that the “recent research and training was done by Murmansk Sea Biology Research Institute in northern Russia on behalf of the navy to see if beluga whales could be used to ‘guard entrances to naval bases’ in arctic regions, ‘assist deep water divers and if necessary kill any strangers who enter their territory.'”
Interestingly, Russia’s not the only country training animals for military purposes. Beginning in 1959, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program out of San Diego has trained bottlenose dolphins and sea lions to detect and clear mines and recover lost equipment, among other things.