A lone and friendly beluga whale with a harness attached to its body was first reported on
26th of April 2019 off of Tufjord, in Finnmark, in northern Norway. The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries sent experts to respond to this sighting and to assist the animal in disentanglement. Joar Hesten, the fisherman who reported the sighting earlier was soon joined by Jørgen Wiig and Yngve Larsen. The team first tried to unfasten the harness from a boat, but the operation failed each time due to challenging access to the clips. Eventually, and after entering the cold waters with the whale, they managed to detach the tight strap. The harness was labeled with "Equipment of Saint Petersburg" and had an equipment mount attachment on the harness. Based on these elements and geographic considerations, it was speculated that the whale was a lost 'spy' animal, trained and used by the Russian Navy.
In the following days, the whale was seen again in the harbor of Tufjord, both by the dock and following local fishing boats cruising in and out the harbor. The locals, especially Linn Sæther, were instantly charmed by the adorable whale, and special interactions with people started occurring. On April 30th, the whale followed a sailboat during its entire
5-hour cruise to Hammerfest. The whale has remained in the harbor of Hammerfest from May throughout July 2019.
Shortly after the whale arrived in his new location (Hammerfest), much enthusiasm and excitement spread among the local community and unique interactions with the beautiful animal multiplied. Videos showing the whale being petted, performing tricks and fetching objects went viral on the web. The general public, through a poll launched by Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, named the whale "Hvaldimir" - "Hval" being a whale in Norwegian and "dimir" in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, is the story as "fun" as it seemed? Based on the harness and highly sociable behavior, it appeared clear that the whale had been used for human benefits and was most likely conditioned to be hand-fed. If so, such behavioral conditioning could have resulted in the whale being dependent on people and not able to successfully hunt and feed itself. In fact, a week of behavioral observations and multi-sensor camera tagging (www.cats.is) conducted by scientists from Norwegian Orca Survey (NOS) failed to reveal any successful feeding. The whale's body was also judged to be lean by international experts. NOS, therefore, urged the need to take action to ensure the whale's welfare and survival before the situation reached a critical point of no return. The organization developed and submitted feeding protocols to the authorities, and secured the financial resources necessary to initiate the intervention. The first donation of funds to support the emergency response was the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund (USA).
After the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries issued an official approval to feed Hvaldimir on May 16 (link), and in collaboration with Hammerfest Kommune (link), NOS initiated the feeding program and committed to temporarily monitor the animal's well being and protection. The team of volunteers has been providing the whale with daily food, body checks and care in the harbor of Hammerfest all summer.
The local community has been incredibly welcoming, supportive and eager to help Hvaldimir. People provided us with additional logistical and financial resources that were crucial to initiate the feeding program as fast as possible. In order to boost Hvaldimir's protection and health, a code of conduct was also introduced. The harbor authority further restricted access to the docks which instantly promoted the whale to spend more time exploring his natural environment and reduced his time roaming in the busy path of the inner harbor.
After just a few weeks of efforts, Hvaldimir had put on weight, displayed higher levels of energy, became more active and seemed to thrive in his new habitat. Camera-tagging also suggested an interest in live fish and possibly developing hunting skills, even though effective prey capture and consumption could not be confirmed. The team constantly re-adapted daily food base in order to promote natural foraging. Educational feeding sessions have been given daily to the general public to raise awareness and to aid in Hvaldimir's protection.
The harbor of Hammerfest is a busy location with boat traffic and also listed as one of the most polluted harbors in Norway. Therefore, relocating Hvaldimir to a safer environment and possibly a fjord nearby was considered and remained the goal to work towards. However, the story took another turn after Hvaldimir left Hammerfest harbor on July 19. The team of care-givers had to follow Hvaldimir's movements through multiple remote locations in an attempt to feed him and monitor his condition. Surprisingly, the whale started refusing his favorite fish and became a little more independent, even though still actively seeking contact with people.
By early September, and in about 1.5 month, Hvaldimir had swam a minimum of 650 km. Monitoring of his activities and fecal sampling confirmed that he was able to feed himself.
The endless efforts of the team, supported by local communities, certainly saved Hvaldimir's life and prevented him from dying of starvation. Most substantial remaining challenge for the whale yet remains to fulfill his social needs. Indeed, beluga whales are among the most social mammals and often spend their entire life in a stable group. It is likely that Hvaldimir will seek contact with people instead, for as long as he lives.