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    Sunday, December 03, 2023

    An alleged Russian spy whale turned up in Sweden

    The alleged former Russian spy has spent the past few years bumming around the Norwegian coast, where he made friends with locals and became known for his toothy grin. He's recently turned up in Sweden, where local authorities have welcomed him even as they figure out what to do with him. He's also a whale.

    The beluga whale, named Hvaldimir — a pun on his ostensibly Russian heritage and "hval," the Norwegian word for whale — was spotted in Swedish waters, according to the nonprofit OneWhale, which advocates for Hvaldimir. The group said Monday it was in contact with Swedish authorities, who it said had "quickly taken action to care for the whale." Regina Haug, OneWhale's founder, said in a statement that Swedish authorities had "even closed a bridge to protect him."

    Hvaldimir's appearance in Sweden has added another international element to the years-long saga of fascination and concern over how best to deal with the friendly animal thought to be a former intelligence asset.

    The beluga whale was first observed by Norwegian fishermen in 2019. When he kept pestering their boats, they took a closer look and noticed he was wearing a harness with "Equipment of St. Petersburg" inscribed on it, raising suspicions that he was a remnant of a Russian navy program that was purportedly seeking to train aquatic mammals as spies. (Russia's Defense Ministry has denied the existence of the program, but the ministry had published an ad seeking dolphins for such purposes.)

    Norwegian fishermen promptly removed the harness and handed it over to Norway's Police Security Service. There was no indication that any equipment was attached to it. Sweden's Environmental Protection Agency referred a request for comment to the Swedish Coast Guard, which declined to comment, writing in an email that "questions regarding espionage and related subjects are not under our responsibilities." It referred The Post to the Swedish Armed Forces, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    At first, Hvaldimir stuck around the Finnmark region where he was found in northern Norway, near its border with Russia. But then he was spotted last week in Oslofjord, the narrow waterway at the mouth of Norway's capital and most populous city. The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries issued an advisory: "Avoid contact with the beluga whale in Oslofjord." Frank Bakke-Jensen, the agency's director, warned that in such a densely populated area, contact with the whale could risk his being injured, "or in the worst case, killed," by boat traffic.

    It wasn't immediately clear what had spurred his journey away from peaceful waters toward more populated areas, but it's "most likely that he's seeking human interaction," said Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist and former marine mammal trainer.

    His past life, before he turned up in northern Norway, probably involved being trained by humans, Pirotta said. Since then, he's become a local celebrity, boosted by a viral video of him fetching an onlooker's phone that had fallen in the water. Such interactions have further reinforced a desire for human interaction, Pirotta said, noting that in the wild, beluga whales are very social beings and often stick together in pods rather than roaming the seas alone.

    That penchant for human interaction is central to the debate over what, if anything, to do with him.

    OneWhale, which says its mission is to "offer Hvaldimir refuge, rehabilitation and release," has advocated for the creation of a protected nature reserve for the whale, where he would be rehabilitated before being introduced to the wild beluga population. "We believe he deserves to be truly free with his own kind," the organization says on its website.

    But a plan that involves putting him into captivity would be "taking a step back," Pirotta said. She noted that Hvaldimir is already in the wild, and that whales that have become accustomed to human interaction often have difficulties assimilating into wild populations.

    The Norwegian fisheries agency also said it was against plans to put Hvaldimir in captivity, saying the whale is "a free-living animal and we see no reason to capture it and put it behind barriers." But his presence in more populated areas could change that calculation, Bakke-Jensen said last week.

    Pirotta said that although the matter is complicated, "everyone has the best intentions for him." And though his appearance in Sweden has raised concerns, Hvaldimir's situation roaming Scandinavian waters is far from dire, she said. By feeding himself and avoiding fatal run-ins with humans and their boats, she said, he's proved his "street smarts."

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