Since the invasion of Ukraine, any suspicious activity near Russia’s borders naturally sets the West on edge.
So one can only imagine the alarm that set in last week when it emerged an alleged ‘Russian spy’ named Hvaldimir had been spotted ‘in Swedish waters’.
But this was no ordinary spy.
For Hvaldimir is in fact a young beluga whale, whose charming appeals for fish from passing boats and his love of fetching rubber rings are far removed from the sinister purpose for which he was reportedly trained.
Indeed, Hvaldimir – a Norwegian nickname and play on Vladimir Putin – appears to be the product of a top secret Russian military animal-training program.
Its aim, say experts in the West, is nothing less than to ‘weaponize’ sea creatures such as belugas, dolphins and seals – and ultimately turn them into deep-sea agents that can spy on and even attack the vessels and personnel of enemy nations.
One can only imagine the alarm that set in last week when it emerged an alleged ‘Russian spy’ named Hvaldimir had been spotted ‘in Swedish waters’. (Pictured in Norway in 2019).
But this was no ordinary spy. For Hvaldimir is in fact a young beluga whale and likely the product of a top secret Russian military animal-training program. (Pictured in Norway in 2019).
And so the troubling question: is Hvaldimir harmless, having accidentally escaped from his shadowy Arctic training pen – or is he still on active service?
The first we heard of him was back in 2019, when he was spotted swimming alone by fishermen in the waters off Norway.
Coming so close to humans is unusual. And it was this boldness that first raised the alarm bells that this may not be an ordinary beluga.
That and, of course, the harness the fishermen spotted it wearing that bore a inscription in English: ‘Equipment of St Petersburg’.
More concerning still, the harness was later identified as a custom-built carrier for two GoPro cameras.
Naturally, Russia remained silent. But renegade researchers from the country, as well as experts in Norway, made clear they were convinced both the whale and harness had come from a military program run by Putin’s Navy.
And, when a beluga was filmed – again in Norwegian waters – a few months later (first retrieving a Go-Pro camera it had knocked out of a canoeist’s hands, and later fetching a ball thrown off a boat by a group of South African rugby fans) they concluded he was the same creature that had accosted the fishermen.
They believed the whale, lonely and malnourished, had escaped from a marine pen while he was being transported to a new location – probably a Russian submarine base in the Barents Sea which specializes in underwater research and secret operations.
Hvaldimir was first spotted in 2019 by fishermen, in the waters off Norway. He was wearing a harness that bore a inscription in English: ‘Equipment of St Petersburg’ (pictured right).
A group named OneWhale was subsequently set up to track and protect the beluga – which was soon given its punny sobriquet – with the hope of one day introducing him back into the wild.
For years, he hung around industrial salmon farms and was spotted off Norway’s capital, Oslo.
But this year he started moving south towards Sweden, traveling 900 miles in the past two months alone.
A shadowy outfit called the Murmansk Sea Biology Research Institute is thought to be responsible for training Hvaldimir.
And while the official line is that no such program exists, in 2017 a report by a Russian state-controlled TV station admitted that the military had been trying to train whales, dolphins and seals.
According to the report – which appeared to be aimed at reinforcing the message Russia was strengthening its military presence in the Arctic – belugas like Hvaldimir had been trained to guard naval base entrances, ‘assist deep water divers and, if necessary, kill any strangers who enter their territory’.
While whales trained to kill might sound like something out of an Austin Powers movie, Western experts in the know will tell you they aren’t remotely surprised.
Poor, lonesome Hvaldimir, they say, is the legacy of a Cold War race between the U.S. and the Soviets to control the undersea world.
And that meant trying to turn cetaceans – that’s whales, dolphins and porpoises – into guards, spies and even assassins.
While whales trained to kill might sound like something out of an Austin Powers movie, Western experts in the know will tell you they aren’t remotely surprised. (Pictured: A U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program).
Poor, lonesome Hvaldimir, they say, is the legacy of a Cold War race between the U.S. and the Soviets to control the undersea world. (Pictured: A U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program).
The Kremlin is thought to have prioritized its own research into the military use of cetaceans after it was thrown into panic by a 1966 US news story that claimed – not entirely accurately – that the American government was training ‘Kamikaze Porpoises’ to detect and attack Soviet subs.
Indeed, a 1976 CIA report found that the Soviets were soon training bottlenose dolphins at several facilities of their own. Within two years, the CIA warned, Soviet dolphins could be capable of placing ‘packages’ – either tracking devices or explosives – onto ships.
The Russian dolphins were thought to be based in the far east of the country near Alaska, before later being moved to the Crimea, where they were inherited by Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
When the project ran out of money, however, some were moved to a private dolphinarium where they performed for tourists. Then, in 2000, their chief trainer – no longer able to afford even food and medicine for the animals – sold the remaining collection (four dolphins and one beluga) to the Iranians.
The trainer, Boris Zhurid, then revealed all – saying he’d taught them to attack enemy frogmen with harpoons attached to their backs or, more simply, to drag them to the surface so they could be captured by Soviet sailors.
They were also capable of suicide missions – carrying mines that would explode on contact with the hull of enemy ships.
In fact, the dolphins – thought to be among the most intelligent species on the planet – were said to be able to distinguish between Soviet and enemy submarines by the sound of their propellers alone.
It’s little surprise then, that post-Soviet Russia has maintained its interest in ‘attack cetaceans’.
Putin’s armed forces are alleged to have researched arming dolphins with hypodermic syringes filled with carbon dioxide. If injected into passing divers, the result would be fatal.
A 1966 US news story claimed the American government was training ‘Kamikaze Porpoises’ to detect and attack Soviet subs. (Pictured: A sea lion involved in the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program).
A U.S. Navy seal attaches a recovery line to a piece of test equipment.
In 2012, it also emerged Ukraine had been training its own dolphins to attack enemy divers with ‘special knives or pistols fixed to their heads’. When Russia later seized the dolphin base, Ukrainian officials claimed rather hilariously that the creatures died ‘patriotically’ by going on hunger strike.
In 2016, a document uploaded on to the Russian government’s procurement website revealed its military had been offering contracts worth $21,000 for the safe delivery of five dolphins with perfect teeth and no physical impairments to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.
But the Russians aren’t alone in their continued fascination with the military potential of aquatic mammals.
The US Navy has been studying dolphins since the late 1950s. Initially, the intention was to see if their streamlined body shape, as well as their sophisticated sonar systems, could be used to improve submarine and torpedo designs.
Much of this early work was led by Max Kramer, a former Nazi guided-missile expert brought to the US as part of Operation Paperclip – a secret program to smuggle out German scientists after the Second World War and use their expertise.
Later, research turned to using sea mammals, mainly bottlenose dolphins and sea lions, for actual operations such as recovering weapons in deep water, patrolling harbors and clearing mines.
The U.S. has also reportedly attempted to train sharks for ‘swimmer protection’ and sea lions to cuff divers with giant leg traps.
However, when they experimented with killer whales, they found they had immense difficulty keeping the easily-bored orcas focused on the job.
The US Navy has been studying dolphins since the late 1950s. Initially, the intention was to see if their streamlined body shape could be used to improve submarine and torpedo designs. (Pictured: Dolphin training on U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program).
Later, research turned to using sea mammals, mainly bottlenose dolphins and sea lions, for actual operations such as recovering weapons in deep water, patrolling harbors and clearing mines. (Pictured: Dolphin training on U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program).
The smarter and more versatile bottlenoses, however, can be trained to incredible precision. They can learn to attach location markers or floatation devices to mines deep in the ocean – and far deeper than frogmen can reach without getting the bends.
In 1970, the U.S. actually deployed bottlenoses to defend ships in the Vietnam War. They were flown in specially to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay to deal with enemy divers wreaking havoc with limpet mines.
Though the government denies training the animals to kill, eye-witness reports tell a different tale.
Once they spotted intruders, the dolphins were said to push their snouts into a fiberglass nose cone fitted with a barbed steel hook, before plunging them into the buttocks or thighs of their enemies.
The nose cones would then rapidly inflate, dragging the divers to the surface to be captured.
U.S. Navy dolphins are also believed to have been used to clear mines during the 1980s Iran-Iraq conflict and the 2003 Iraq invasion. And it is widely thought that sea lions and dolphins still patrol restricted waters at a naval base in San Diego.
Of course, countless ‘war horses’, dogs, carrier pigeons and more have been used and killed in battle over the centuries. However, animal-rights activists have become increasingly critical in recent years.
But while many deplore such practices as blatant cruelty, in the case of the aquatic mammals used during the Cold War, Canadian historian and animal-warfare expert Jason Colby insists there were significant benefits from the military’s interest.
In fact, the US Navy’s research, especially its discoveries about the high intelligence and unique characteristics of dolphins and whales, played a critical role in transforming the scientific and popular view of these animals, he says.
In 1970, the U.S. actually deployed bottlenoses to defend ships in the Vietnam War. They were flown in specially to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay to deal with enemy divers wreaking havoc with limpet mines. (Pictured: Dolphin training on U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program).
Previously they had been seen as little different to fish and were massacred without compunction.
Even the Soviets, heartless supporters of whaling that they were, eventually banned the killing of dolphins in their waters in 1966 after they realized their Navy might need them.
Meanwhile, one Russian navy-trained sea mammal in particular – smiley Hvaldimir – continues on his solitary journey, fetching balls and dropped phones for passing tourists and canoeists.
Is he still a determined enemy of the West? It seems unlikely.
Nonetheless, he is living proof that some of the world’s most dangerous military forces remain focused on turning sea creatures into watery weapons.
Source: | This article originally belongs to Dailymail.co.uk