White whale still worries researchers

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A white beluga whale bearing harnesses that caught the attention of a Norwegian fishing boat’s crew, and later much of the world, has been performing tricks this week for spectators in the far northern village of Tufjord. The whale’s unusual behaviour still worries researchers who aren’t sure he’ll survive in the wild.

Officials from the Norwegian Fisheries Directorate were called in to help get the harnesses off the white beluga whale that was behaving strangely off Rolvsøy in Northern Norway last week. A local fisherman finally donned a survival suit and jumped into the chilly Arctic water to swim with the whale, and succeeded in releasing one of the harness’ buckles. PHOTO: Norwegian Fisheries Directorate

“He’s so comfortable with people that when you call to him, he’ll come right up to you,” Linn Sæther, who lives in Tufjord on the Arctic island of Rolvsøy, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday. After being relieved of the harnesses bearing the insignia “Equipment St. Petersburg” on their buckles, the whale swam along the coast and then towards the wharf in Tufjord.

Sæther told how both children and adults have been able to pat the whale on his head, and he willingly twirls around in the water and then approaches the wharf with his mouth open as if expecting a fish in reward. When one local resident tossed it a fish, though, the whale dove to the shallow sea bottom and carefully brought up the fish to return it.

“It seems like he’s used to being given assignments and having something to do,” Sæther said. “He’s clearly used to picking things up and giving them to whoever trained him.”

Grabbed international attention
The whale’s story went global after Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) aired video of how the whale followed a local fishing boat last week and didn’t appear to be well. The Guardian newspaper in the UK, along with CNN and CBS in the US, all published photos and video, spreading suspicions that the whale was part of a secret Russian naval program that trains whales strapped with cameras or even weapons.  Russian researchers have told their Norwegian colleagues they don’t harness their research subjects. Some international media outlets even reported that the whale had been “harassing” the fishing boat.

Those on board rather suggested that the whale seemed to be seeking their help. They called in the state fisheries directorate, and two officials tried unsuccessfully from a raft to remove the whale’s harnesses. Fishing crew member Joar Hesten had a better idea: Hesten put on a survival suit and jumped into the cold water himself, swimming and splashing around and inviting the whale to approach. When he did, Hesten managed to open the buckle on one of the whale’s harnesses. The whale later squirmed out of the second one himself, to the applause and claps on the back of those on board.

(See the whale’s rescue here, external link to NRK, in Norwegian).

After watching all the whale’s tricks and twirling performances (another external link to NRK, in Norwegian) this week, another theory emerged: St Petersburg is also the name of a city in Florida, where whales and dolphins have been kept in captivity for entertainment purposes. Whether the whale came from Russia or the US, researchers worry that all the signs of its captivity and training don’t bode well for survival in the wild.

“It’s difficult to see how it will manage on its own,” Audun Rikardsen, a professor and whale researcher at Norway’s Arctic University of Tromsø, told NRK. “We have examples that it can go well, for example when the same type of whale was released in Russia earlier. But we also have examples of how it doesn’t go well, as in the case of Keiko.” That’s the whale who appeared in the Free Willy films, was released in Iceland and eventually showed up near Kristiansund off Norway’s West Coast. Keiko’s long life in an aquarium made it difficult for him to adapt to life in the open sea. He was lonely, because other whales didn’t accept him in their flocks, Keiko had trouble finding food. He ended up dying abruptly from what researchers said was a case of pneumonia.

The “clearly” well-trained whale was believed to be suffering from the tight harnesses strapped around him. They remained a mystery this week, but the whale is now free and still seeking lots of human attention. PHOTO: Norwegian Fisheries Directorate

Rikardsen said the whale now seeking human companionship in Tufjord must learn to find food on his own. He’ll also need to find a flock that will accept him, and he’ll need to learn the flock’s social rules. No one knows how long the white whale has been held in captivity.

“When the whale comes and seems to beg for food, it’s natural to want to give it to him,” Rikardsen told NRK, “but then he won’t learn how to find it himself. So ideally folks should stop feeding him.” Both Linn Sæther, who’s had many close encounters with the whale this week, and Jørgen Ree Wiig, an inspector for the fisheries directorate, agreed.

“It’s actually sad that he’s here,” Sæther told NRK. “I’m also worried he won’t survive in the open sea.” Wiig said the fisheries directorate would evaluate how to help him, but was unsure to what degree it was best to do so.

“We’ll follow up on him, because we now have responsibility for him,” Wiig told NRK.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund