New theory ties whale to therapy

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A white beluga whale that turned up recently in Norwegian waters has neither been trained as a spy nor as an assault weapon, according to a Norwegian newspaper specializing in the fishing industry. It reported on Tuesday that it’s fairly certain the whale is named “Semjon,” and was trained for entertainment purposes and to offer therapy for troubled children in Russia.

The sociable white whale that’s grabbed headlines in Norway and around the world may have been used for therapy, not military purposes. PHOTO: Jørgen Ree Wiig / Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries (Sea Surveillance Service)

“The white whale in Finnmark has probably escaped from a Russian therapy facility near the Norwegian border,” Morten Vikeby, Norway’s former consul in Murmansk, told newspaper Fiskeribladet. Vikeby used to work for the paper himself, and reported on white whales trained for therapy purposes in 2008.

“I recognized the whale from a report we did,” Vikeby told Fiskeribladet. He couldn’t be sure it’s the exact same whale, but thinks earlier theories that the whale escaped from a Russian naval base, where it may have been trained for special military operations, are incorrect.

Vikeby did a story on how a Russian water sports center on the border between Murmansk and the region of Karelen had started caring 16 years ago for a white whale after it had been attacked by sea lions in the wild. White whales can live to be 50 years old, he said, and the one saved and named Semjon was trained both for entertainment purposes and to inspire school children and children suffering mental health problems.

Harnesses found on the whale off Finnmark, Vikeby said, were probably used to tow small boats with children on board. “That’s also the reason the whale (which Norwegian Broadcasting has since dubbed “Hvaldimir”) is so social,” Vikeby said. “He thrives among people.”

One of the children’s teachers in a subsequent video taken for Fiskeribladet and reported by Russian TV5 had told Vikeby that contact with the whale was “a very special experience” for the children that brought them “closer to nature and to themselves.”

See the video from 2008 on Fiskeribladet’s website here (external link, in Norwegian and Russian).

Vikeby’s theory was welcomed by Jørgen Ree Wiig, an inspector for Norway’s fisheries directorate that has take over responsibility for the tame whale. “We had thought along the lines of espionage or war, but now it looks like this is a whale trained to do good,” Wiig told Fiskeribladet in a report picked up by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “That’s fantastic.”

Several of the tricks performed by the whale in the Russian TV5 video are similar to those performed by “Hvaldimir” for Norwegians in Finnmark, where the whale first followed fishing boats, then swam into the harbour of a village on the island of Rolvsøy and most recently was swimming in the waters off Hammerfest.

NRK reported earlier this week that fisheries officials in Norway are considering transporting the white whale to a nature preserve off Iceland. Vikeby thinks the whale should be returned to the therapy and water sports center in Russia. No one has reported the whale missing, which added to the speculation it had been trained for Russian special operations. “Maybe the owners (of the sports and therapy center) just haven’t dared to admit the whale had escaped,” Vikeby said.

Olav Lekve of the fisheries directorate, laughed when told of Vikeby’s theory. “We’ll just try to get it to return to a normal life at sea,” Lekve said, adding that he still hadn’t heard from anyone claiming ownership of the whale.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund