A beluga whale wearing a harness approached fishing-boats off the Norwegian coast last month. It allowed itself to be stroked: Clearly, the visitor was used to people. A fisherman entered the water and removed the contraption, which carried a label with the inscription ‘Equipment of St Petersburg’.
The animal, it’s believed, had been recruited by the Russian navy and trained to carry cameras, or worse, in covert undersea operations. Having deserted, it was seeking political asylum in Norwegian waters.
In 1877, the Royal Aquarium in London purchased a female beluga which had been captured off the Canadian coast. It would become the first whale ever to be exhibited to the public. Belugas were hunted relentlessly back then, so imprisonment in a tank was preferable to being killed.
‘Beluga’ is Russian for ‘white’; whales of this species are all-white or occasionally yellow-tinged. The monster ‘super-transporter’ aircraft, which ferries Airbus sub-assemblies between Wales and Toulouse in France, is known as ‘the beluga’; it too is white.
The ghostly beluga belongs to the ‘toothed’ sub-order of cetaceans, which includes the dolphins and orcas. Males may exceed 5m in length and weigh up of 1.5 tonnes. Uniquely among whales, belugas have flexible necks and can turn their heads in any direction, as seals do. There is no dorsal fin.
Very gregarious, belugas form schools, congregations sometimes several hundred strong. Known as ‘canary whales’, they are accomplished vocalists, producing rich and varied ‘songs’, sometimes heard above water. In 2012, a captive one learned to make sounds resembling human speech.
“Occasionally, the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance’, wrote whale zoologist Sam Ridgway in Current Biology.
Belugas avoid deep water and occasionally swim up rivers. Preferring sub-Arctic waters, they are rarely seen off the Irish coast, although one entered Cork Harbour in June 1988. They may seem an odd choice for military service, bottle-nosed dolphins being far better qualified for ‘special operations’.
Bottle-noses can master complex routines and perform extraordinary acrobatic feats in aquarium shows. The US navy has trained them for mine detection and harbour protection. One, named Tiffy, carried messages 60m down to Sealab off the Californian coast and was trained to guide lost divers.
The waters off Russia’s northern ports in the Barents and Kara seas, however, are too cold for bottle-noses, whereas icy conditions are the habitat of choice for belugas.
Whiteness and the absence of a dorsal fin are clues to the species’ lifestyle. The colour provides camouflage against the white background when hunting around ice floes and an upwardly protruding fin, rubbing against the ice, would be a hindrance. The great enemy is the orca. When threatened, a beluga retreats under the ice where the orca, with its huge dorsal fin, can’t follow it. The defence isn’t perfect; polar bears wait above holes in the ice, ready to pounce.
Belugas, therefore, tick most of the boxes for military service. Sociable and friendly towards people, they can be kept in captivity and trained. Creatures of shallow seas with flexible necks, used to manoeuvring past obstacles in nooks and crannies, they don’t become trapped or stranded.
Following the removal of its harness, the renegade was released to the wild. Will it remain free or return to barracks? What ‘duties’ did it have in the Russian navy, and why did it defect to the West?