Footage of a beluga whale playing rugby with a group of South African sailors near the Arctic Circle went viral this week, with the video viewed over 19.5 million times on Facebook, and millions of times more on Twitter and YouTube.
The fascinating clip shows the beluga bringing a rugby ball to the hands of a man onboard the small Gemini Craft boat, who then throws it, with the whale giving chase. The beluga is then seen picking up the ball in its mouth, swimming toward the boat, and handing the ball back to the men.
The footage, filmed aboard a South African marine research vessel outside Hammerfest, northern Norway, has led to the renewal of speculation in some quarters about whether the beluga was really Whaledimir, the alleged ‘Russian spy whale’ named after the Russian president.
The whale was originally deemed to be a ‘Russian spy’ after the discovery of an ‘Equipment St. Petersburg’ inscription, written in English, on one of its harness clips. The Russian military has remained tight-lipped about the incident, although former army colonel Viktor Baranets dismissed the claim that the Russian military would be stupid enough to “leave their calling card” on an animal supposedly trained for secret missions.
But Ferris Jabr, New York Times Magazine science contributor, tweeted that the new footage of the whale was that of Whaledimir, “a once captive whale who may have escaped a Russian military programme. Alone, malnourished, and injured, [the whale] roams the seas, seeking food & attention from people.”
Hvaldimir appeared in waters near Hammerfest, Norway this past spring wearing a harness reportedly labeled "Equipment of St. Petersburg," which led to speculation that he may have been trained to be a Russian spy https://t.co/kisSGNGTgW pic.twitter.com/BxWCsRviQK— Ferris Jabr (@ferrisjabr) 9 ноября 2019 г.
However, other users soon challenged the journalist, pointing to media reports that the beluga’s health has improved lately, to the point where he is capable of feeding himself in the wild. Others asked why, if he was truly “an escaped Russian asset,” the Russians haven’t taken him back, stressing that surely the Russian Navy has the capability to do so.
Actually he is doing much better now! After months of supportive feeding by the Norwegian Orca Survey, he has learned to hunt for himself and is living in a fjord south of Alta. He is gaining weight and confidence. https://t.co/SOvcaQXzHr— L Burchard (@lburchard) 10 ноября 2019 г.
How come the Russians haven’t taken him in, since he is presumed to be an escaped Russian asset?🤔. Surely it is within Russian capabilities to “bring him back home”— Jack Mandora⚖️ (@Zemi66) 9 ноября 2019 г.
Since being spotted in April, Whaledimir has been repeatedly spotted in and around the waters of northern Norway, bringing a GoPro camera back to a curious kayaker, retrieving an iPhone dropped into the water near him, and acting in a generally playful and helpful manner around humans.
In addition to his alleged stint with the Russian military, the whale has also been rumoured to be a runaway therapeutic animal.
Although Whaledimir’s true origins and purpose remain unclear, Russia and the United States do have a proven history of using marine mammals for military operations going back to the days of the Cold War, with both countries experimenting in the training of seals, sea lions, beluga whales, and dolphins to guard bases, inspect underwater equipment, engage in search and rescue missions, and even safely neutralise sea mines.