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An alleged Russian spy whale is in Sweden — and danger. Here's why his tale matters

Hvaldimir pictured in Stad, Norway, earlier this year, shortly before he began his abrupt journey south.
Rich German
Hvaldimir pictured in Stad, Norway, earlier this year, shortly before he began his abrupt journey south.

A beluga whale long believed to be a Russian spy has surfaced in Sweden, fueling concerns about his well-being and efforts to protect him from dangerous boat traffic.

Hvaldimir — a combination of the Norwegian word for whale (hval) and Russian President Vladimir Putin's first name — has spent the last several years swimming south down the coast of Norway, where he was first spotted by fishermen in 2019.

He had been wearing a harness labeled "Equipment St. Petersburg," which led many to believe he'd been trained by the Russian navy for intelligence purposes. (Russia and the U.S. are among the handful of countries that have military training programs incorporating aquatic mammals.)

Hvaldimir has become something of a local celebrity in the years since, with viral videos showing him picking up a woman's dropped cell phone and stealing and retrieving a kayaker's GoPro.

"He is a friendly, tamed, displaced, formerly captive whale who relies on humans for social interaction," says OneWhale, a nonprofit established specifically to protect Hvaldimir. "Belugas are highly social whales and he has been living all alone the past four years."

But those interactions can come at a cost. Hvaldimir has been injured by boat propellers, sharp objects, fishing hooks and foreign items being placed in his mouth — and faces heightened danger in Sweden, which has more people and fewer fish than Norway.

OneWhale said Monday that it is working with Swedish authorities to protect him, even closing a bridge to limit access by the public and help their team get on site faster.

President Rich German told NPR in a phone interview that OneWhale's short-term goal is to protect Hvaldimir, "whose life is in clear danger."

Their ultimate goal is to create a 500-acre marine reserve in northern Norway where they can rehabilitate him before releasing him into a wild population of beluga whales — and they envision him being the first of many inhabitants.

"The silver lining to Hvaldimir's sad story is that that reserve will also be a home for whales that are also living in captivity in marine parks and places like that all around the world," German says. "Hvaldimir's story has the chance to transform from being one of extremely inhumane animal treatment to him being a global ambassador for compassion and love between humans and animals."

A group of local firefighters pose for a photo in Kungshamn, Sweden, on Sunday, as Hvaldimir swims in the water behind them.
Sebastian Strand / Rich German
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Rich German
A group of local firefighters pose for a photo in Kungshamn, Sweden, on Sunday, as Hvaldimir swims in the water behind them.

How — and why — did he get to Sweden?

For years Hvaldimir hung around industrial salmon farms, getting valuable social interaction from the workers and sustenance from the plentiful wild fish (and, OneWhale says, posing a workplace hazard and environmental liability in the process). But he recently, and suddenly, took off south.

"He traveled about 900 miles in the last two months, and in the previous two years he traveled about 375 miles," German says.

No one knows exactly what spurred Hvaldimir's journey, though experts have a couple of theories.

German says he might have been following some sort of instinctual migration pattern. Sebastian Strand, a marine biologist with OneWhale, told NPR's Rob Schmitz that he thinks Hvaldimir is lonely.

"A big part of our goal is also reuniting him with others of his own species," he said.

Hvaldimir is believed to be 13 or 14 years old, "an age where his hormones are very high," Strand told The Guardian, which reports that he is not believed to have seen another beluga whale since April 2019.

"It could be hormones driving him to find a mate," Strand added. "Or it could be loneliness, as belugas are a very social species — it could be that he's searching for other beluga whales."

German says it could be that once Hvaldimir got far enough away from the salmon farms he just continued moving south in search of food.

Whatever the reason, the organization is concerned about the toll his travels have taken. It says Hvaldimir has lost weight from swimming so far in such a short period of time while eating less. And it's not clear where he might go next.

"He's always kind of hugged the coastline so he will probably continue to do that," German says. "Whether he's looking for fish, social enrichment, he'll probably keep going. We can't say for sure, but that's the trend that he's followed."

Conservation experts are hoping for a ripple effect

Hvaldimir's story gained renewed attention last week when he was spotted in the waters off Norway's capital of Oslo, with its major industrial ports, murky waters and heavy boat traffic.

German described it as a "perfect storm of danger." OneWhale said at the time that Hvaldimir's chances of further injury or death had significantly increased, with relocation being his best chance of survival.

Hvaldimir somehow skirted those waters, to the relief of many, and ended up in Sweden. German says authorities there were proactive and empathetic, with the local fire department immediately reaching out to his team and taking action.

"We've been working to protect him for years now, but all of the sudden I think everybody else stepped up and was like, 'This is a dangerous situation ... some type of intervention probably needs to happen,' " he adds.

Just because Hvaldimir is in Sweden doesn't mean he's safe, German says.

The country has more people than Norway, fewer fish and heavier boat traffic, among other risks. OneWhale shared an Instagram video of the whale swimming through a narrow canal, calling it "hard to watch."

It says plans are still underway to transport Hvaldimir north to arctic waters, though German says there aren't any major updates just yet.

And while Hvaldimir's suspected spy past is certainly buzzy, German says it's old news. What matters, he says, is that the whale is still in danger — and represents something bigger.

"The story of this one whale, we believe ... can change the lives of other whales and really how humans look at how we treat animals," German adds. "Putting animals into military service to protect ourselves from ourselves is something I think we can really take a long look at why we do that, plus having whales in marine parks for profit and entertainment. I really feel he is a chance to change the world in many ways."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.