Beluga whale with 'Russia-made harness' swims south to Sweden

In this photo taken in April 2019 a beluga whale found in Arctic Norway is fed. (Jorgen Ree Wiig, Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries via AP)

A beluga whale, which was first spotted in Arctic Norway four years ago with an apparent Russian-made harness and alleged to have come from a Russian military facility, has been seen off Sweden's coast nearly 2,000 kilometres to the south, Norwegian authorities have said.

"During the last few weeks, it has moved quickly and swam several hundred kilometres," before reaching waters off Sweden's west coast, Olav Lekve of the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries said on Tuesday.

He said it has been reported off Lysekill, which sits north of Goteborg, Sweden's second-largest city. There was no immediate comment from Swedish authorities.

On Sunday, he was observed in Hunnebostrand, off Sweden's southwestern coast.

"We don't know why he has sped up so fast right now," especially since he is moving "very quickly away from his natural environment", Sebastian Strand, a marine biologist with the OneWhale organisation, told the AFP news agency.

Last week, the white mammal was spotted in the inner Oslo fjord where the directorate urged people to avoid contact with the animal to ensure its safety and wellbeing.

Whale-watchers in Norway have nicknamed it Hvaldimir, combining the Norwegian word for whale — hval — and the Russian first name Vladimir.

When he first appeared in Norway's Arctic, marine biologists from the Norwegian officials removed an attached man-made harness.

They said Hvaldimir may have escaped an enclosure, and may have been trained by the Russian navy as it appeared to be accustomed to humans.

Moscow never issued any official reaction to Norwegian speculation he could be a "Russian spy".

The directorate has pointed out that there was a risk of injury for Hvaldimir when more recreational boats than usual gathered in the fjord as people sought to catch a glimpse of a huge US aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, which briefly visited the Norwegian capital.

"We have not received any reports from the inner Oslo fjord that give cause for concern," Lekve said in an email to The Associated Press.

Hvaldimir origins

As to its origins, Norwegian authorities "don't want to speculate on it either," Lekve said.

"He is a little lonely whale who hopes to find other white whales that he can hang out with," said Strand of Onewhale, a nonprofit organisation created solely for protecting the health and welfare of Hvaldimir.

"There are few beluga whales along the Norwegian coast and in Sweden. He probably wants to have a family but has swum a little wrong," he told Swedish broadcaster TV4.

Carl Bildt, Sweden's former foreign minister, jokingly suggested to TV4 that Hvaldimir should be granted political asylum in Sweden, saying "it is possible that it is a refugee protesting against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's war" in Ukraine.

Lekve said that, when in Norwegian waters, the beluga whale was considered a protected wild marine mammal, and authorities in Norway have "rejected all inquiries and plans to capture the whale."

In 2019, the enigmatic whale was found frolicking in a frigid harbour near Norway's northernmost point, where it became a local attraction.

The whale, which is no longer wearing the harness, is so comfortable with people that it swims to the dock and retrieves plastic rings thrown into the sea.

Beluga whales, which can reach a size of 20 feet and live to between 40 and 60 years of age, generally inhabit the icy waters around Greenland, northern Norway and Russia.


Source: TRT