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Beluga whale spy: Licence to krill?

Written by Science, Science & Tech

It’s something that you might read about in a sci-fi book.

It’s safe to say a mysterious harnessed beluga whale isn’t something you’d expect to see every day. But, for a group of Norwegian fishermen who discovered the animal, this strange dystopian story became a reality.

With a harness reading ‘Equipment of St. Petersburg’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was some strange joke. But, to the astonishment of Norwegian fishermen off the coast of Inga, this is exactly what they found fastened around the neck of an overly-curious beluga whale.

There has been much speculation over the purpose of these straps. Some have suggested it may have been used to tether a camera, while others think it could house a weapon. In any case, the harness certainly didn’t arrive there by chance.

Confirmation that the whale was familiar with human company occurred when the animal started to approach the fishermen’s boat. While Russian scientists have denied any association with the whale, suggestions that the Russian Navy may be the culprit could bring us one step closer to solving this marine mammal mystery.

While this may at first glance seem like a crazy futuristic event, it is true that animals have long been used by humans for military purposes. According to 2017 reports, dolphins, whales and seals are routinely trained to assist divers detecting mines, retrieving objects and even guarding naval bases. And not just in Russia.

But why use a whale as a spy?

According to Pierre Béland, marine biologist at the St Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology in Montreal, Canada, beluga whales have some key traits that set them up perfectly for a life of espionage. With a calm temperament in stressful situations, exceptional intelligence and an ability to learn things fast, these animals are the ideal 007 candidate. Apart from one thing. It’s a whale.

In the last few years, there’s been a lot of media attention surrounding the exploitation of captive whales for entertainment. SeaWorld may have stopped its breeding programme for captive orcas in 2017, but is taking advantage of these intelligent creatures in their natural environment not a step worse?

For an animal that is so intelligent, we are dehumanising them. We once ate whales, used their oily blubber as fuel for lamps, invaded their natural environment and now, we’re using them as slaves.

I think we need to turn around and take a long, hard look at ourselves if this is actually what the world has come to.

 

Last modified: 15th May 2019

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