‘Russian spy’ whale shines spotlight on military-grade animals
For centuries, human beings have made use of animals’ highly evolved capabilities, from the strength of horses to the hunting ability of birds of prey. Now, a discovery in Norway has turned the focus to the training of animals for military purposes.
Fishermen off Norway’s northern coast were astonished last week when they spotted a beluga whale wearing a harness, complete with mounts for a camera. Marine experts say the mammal’s backstory may be even stranger.
They believe it was trained by the Russian military.
Its harness appeared “specially made,” with “mounts for GoPro cameras on each side of it,” said Jorgen Ree Wiig, a marine biologist at Norway’s Directorate of Fisheries.
The harness clips read “Equipment St. Petersburg.” Wiig believes the whale came from Murmansk, Russia, and was trained by the Russian navy.
Russia’s navy has “been known to train belugas to conduct military operations before,” he said, “like guarding naval bases, helping divers, finding lost equipment.”
Russian authorities did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
“The fact that it’s a trained animal is undoubtable,” Martin Biuw, a marine mammal researcher at Norway’s Institute of Marine Research, told CNN.
Stressing that any statement on the whale’s intended purpose would be “pure speculation,” Biuw added: “We know that the Russian military during the Cold War were training belugas to sniff out mines or old torpedoes.”
Some dolphins’ biosonar outdoes manmade devices
In 2017, the Murmansk Sea Biology Research Institute trained beluga whales, dolphins and seals for military roles, the Siberian Times reported.
And Russian scientists aren’t the only ones reportedly training animals for use in the armed forces.
Since the 1960s, the United States and a handful of other countries have trained dolphins and sea lions to detect sea mines and swimmers, and to recover inert torpedoes and testing objects used in naval exercises.
Program officials estimate that sea lions in the Marine Mammal Program have recovered millions of dollars of US naval torpedoes and instrumentation dropped on the sea floor.
The US Navy kept its Marine Mammal Program a secret until the 1990s, but it’s now more transparent.
The program trains Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which have natural biosonar that is better than any manmade device, and California sea lions, known for their incredible underwater eyesight.
No human technology could compete with the biosonar abilities of dolphins, Marine Mammal Program Director Mike Rothe told CNN in 2011.
“I hope that one day there is a robot or a UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle) that makes the mammal program obsolete,” he said. “But right now this is the best thing out there.”
Dolphins were deployed in the Iraq war, performing mine detection and clearance operations in the Persian Gulf so humanitarian ships could safely deliver aid.
The mammals can be deployed via C-130 cargo aircraft to anywhere in the world within 72 hours and have demonstrated versatility in a wide range of environments and temperatures, from Alaska to Hawaii. After their war service, some guarded nuclear submarines in their homeports of Bremerton, Washington, and Groton, Connecticut.
There they guard sensitive assets, detecting attempts at swimming into the port and alerting security services to intruders.
Scientists have also studied the hydrodynamics of dolphins to improve torpedo performance, though the programs were criticized over animal welfare, a factor that led to more openness.
CNN’s Kaj Larsen contributed to this report.