As It Happens

Is this whale a Russian spy? Beluga turns up in Norway with camera harness

A friendly beluga whale is spotted swimming around a Norwegian fishing village wearing a harness with a mount for a camera — leading to suspicions the whale is a Russian spy.

'Equipment St. Petersburg' was written on the mysterious harness with a GoPro mount

The beluga whale seen as it swims next to a fishing boat before the suspicious harness was removed. (Joergen Ree Wiig/Norwegian Direcorate of Fisheries Sea Surveillance Unit/Associated Press)

Transcript

It's like something out of a Bond film.

Last week, three fishermen on the northern coast of Norway were joined by an inquisitive, friendly beluga whale. It just seemed like a wonderful encounter with nature — until the trio noticed the animal was wearing a harness.

Once officials managed to free the whale from the harness, they discovered the straps read: "Equipment St. Petersburg."

Now there's speculation that Russia might be training beluga whales as part of an international surveillance operation. 

Audun Rikardsen, professor at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsoe, told the Associated Press "it is most likely that the Russian Navy in Murmansk" is involved.

Russia has major military facilities in and around Murmansk, in the far northwest of Russia.

Joergen Ree Wiig is an inspector with the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the suspicious discovery and how he helped free the whale. Here is part of their conversation.

Did the whale appear that it was trying to get this thing off its back?

Yeah, that was our first thought, actually.

This is fastened quite firmly around this whale. How did you get it off the whale?

I tried to lure it towards me with a fish fillet that we just fished a couple of days ago. It's really good.

But it was quite hard. ... We didn't have dry suits on. But the fisherman, he told us that he has a dry suit in his boat, so he can jump in the water and try to get a bigger reach.

We had several attempts. We could touch the harness and then start ripping it off. When we just pressed the clips, it just swam away.

It was a really good feeling.

Norwegian Jørgen Wiig holds the harness after it was removed from the beluga whale. (Joergen Ree Wiig/Norwegian Direcorate of Fisheries Sea Surveillance Unit/Associated Press)

Why do you think Russians would have put this harness on the whale?

They have been known to train beluga whales for military purposes. Like, to help divers and always guard the naval bases if enemy divers come into the bases.

But I understand there was something else on this harness that indicated something may have been attached to it.

Yeah, it was like this GoPro mount. When you have a GoPro camera, you can clip it on and off. It had one on each side of it. It's used for filming.

This was a spy whale?

I don't think they would use it for spying here in Norway because it's not like an interesting area for military placement.

The harness strap on the beluga features a mount for an action camera, says "Equipment St. Petersburg." (Joergen Ree Wiig/Norwegian Direcorate of Fisheries Sea Surveillance Unit/Associated Press)

Well, the Russians are pretty interested in Norway these days, especially around the coast. Is it possible that they were trying to use this whale for espionage?

Yeah, so that could be. I think that is only our imagination that could set this up for what it could be.

How close are you to any kind of naval base to Russia?

It's not that far. Like, Murmansk is quite close, and the U.S. have a big dome in Vardo, like in far eastern Norway, that the Russians are not that happy about.

Written by Ashley Mak and John McGill with files from Associated Press. Produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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