This article was updated on 14/11/19 to correct a mistake in Isabella Clegg's remarks.
A viral video showing a white beluga whale playing fetch with a boat may not be as cute as it seems. The video was originally posted on Facebook on November 6 before being shared on other social media like Twitter. It was posted on Facebook by Alon Kowen, who captioned it, ‘Beluga Whale celebrating the Springboks victory’, in reference to South Africa’s recent victory over England at this year’s Rugby World Cup. The video quickly went viral, reaching over 2.4 million views, with some people calling the animal the ‘rugby-playing whale’, and many making jokes about how the whale plays better than the England players.
It begins with a beluga whale approaching a boat with a rugby ball carried carefully in its mouth. A man leans over the side of the boat, takes the ball from the whale’s mouth, and throws it back into the sea. The camera pans to show the whale swimming underwater to retrieve the ball and bring it back to the boat.
It’s another in a long line of viral videos showing an animal with unusual or even humanlike behaviour – but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The whale in the video is actually already well-known: it’s Hvaldimir, a beluga whale presumed escaped from a Russian military facility. He turned up in the waters off the fishing village of Tufjord, on an island at the northern tip of Norway in April this year. He had a harness attached to his body labelled with the words, ‘Equipment of St Petersburg’, and harassed fishermen’s boats by approaching them and tugging on straps and ropes hanging off the sides. Cetacean experts eventually managed to undo the harness, and have been tracking the whale’s movements ever since.
Escaped from Russian military programme
Researchers believe that the whale was formerly trained at a Russian military facility (hence his name, chosen through a Norwegian public poll – ‘hval’ is Norwegian for whale, and ‘dimir’ refers to Russian President Vladimir Putin). Marine animals are used in military programmes across the world and can be trained to find and retrieve lost equipment, detect mines or find intruders or divers.
The whale captured the attention of the public, particularly due to his friendly and tame nature. From Tufjord, Hvaldimir followed a boat south to the harbour of Hammerfest on April 30th, and he has stayed in that port ever since.
The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries set up the Hvaldimir Foundation, a group of people monitoring and feeding Hvaldimir on a regular basis. But if Hvaldimir was previously kept in captivity, that means he depends on human interaction and will have difficulty re-adapting to living in the wild. This is why videos that show him interacting with tourists or passing boats aren’t as positive as they seem: these interactions only serve to deepen his dependence on humans and even put him in harm’s way.
“This is not normal behaviour for a wild beluga”
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Dr Isabella Clegg, a cetacean welfare expert and founder of UK-based Animal Welfare Expertise, about the whale’s behaviour and how researchers can reasonably presume that he was formerly captive.
It would not be normal behaviour for a wild beluga to go and do that. First of all, wild belugas aren’t at all common in that area, and second, they are always in groups. Thirdly, it just wouldn’t pick up a man-made object, particularly one thrown from a boat. Even if a whale found an object like that in the sea, it would first spend time investigating it, and even then it might not touch it unless it were particularly inquisitive. Belugas can be quite shy.
Clearly this whale is used to humans. He will probably previously have come into contact with balls and toys like that. Most likely he has been trained to retrieve stuff and has received fish as a reward.
It’s irresponsible of those on this boat to play with him. [Editor’s note: the person in the video is wearing a hoody bearing the logo of the Danah Explorer, a marine research vessel used by the Danah Divers, a research body linked with the Save Our Seas Foundation.] Maybe they didn’t know that this is a former captive beluga, but the basic rule is not to play with wild whales. You shouldn’t interfere with wild animals like that. You also shouldn’t throw stuff into the sea.
One iteration of the video posted on Twitter and viewed over 20 million times.
Dr Clegg says that if the beluga whale was released or escaped from a Russian military programme, they may not have come to collect him for fear of drawing attention to secretive military training.
She spoke about the possible risks that Hvaldimir may be facing in his new home – and what options there are to ensure his safety and survival.
“Coming into the ports for food puts him in harm’s way”
The problem is we don’t know long he was in captivity. There are success stories of dolphins going back into the wild after being in captivity, but that’s when they’ve only been captive for a couple of years, and when they’ve been released into the wild in pairs.
His dependence on humans limits his ability to escape predators, and if he’s coming into the ports for food then he’s putting himself in harm’s way. The Hvaldimir Foundation are trying to feed him less and less to encourage him to hunt on his own, and are trying to lead him away from the harbour. I think we think that they’re these really smart animals, so they’d never hit their head on a boat, get in the way of a propeller or get entangled in something, but that definitely happens. Also, killer whales come to this area in the winter. The killer whales found in Norway tend to be fish-eating ones, so may be less of a risk to him, but mammal-eating ones do also pass by sometimes.
There’s also the fact that he’s alone. He’s clearly survived so far and can hunt at least partially on his own. Loneliness isn’t a death sentence. It puts them at higher risk of predation, but he can definitely survive. I think he would be able to join a pod but there aren’t any in this area.
The Hvaldimir Foundation has put up a sign in the Hammerfest harbour asking people not to approach the beluga, touch him or throw objects in the water. Some researchers have likened Hvaldimir’s situation to that of Luna, a killer whale who similarly attracted international attention and was killed by a tugboat propeller off the coast of Canada in 2006.
Article by Catherine Bennett.