Hvaldimir, a domesticated beluga whale that has been spotted in Scandinavian waters for years, was seen last week off the coast of Sweden, prompting concern among researchers who worry he could be in danger, especially if people don’t stay away from him.
The highly sociable whale first gained fame in 2019, when he showed up in northern Norway wearing a harness, embossed with “St. Petersburg equipment,” that seemed designed to hold a camera. As a result, he captured the imagination of headline writers, who labeled him a Russian spy.
But Hvaldimir, whose name is a combination of “hval,” the Norwegian word for whale, and Vladimir, is different from other whales. He seems to prefer people to other marine mammals, leading researchers to think that he had been domesticated.
Researchers said it was impossible to know for sure whether Hvaldimir had really been a spy whale, and no country has claimed him. Militaries have long used animals, including during the Cold War, when the Soviet Navy trained dolphins for military use. The U.S. Navy has trained beluga whales to perform recovery operations and to find underwater mines.
The harness that Hvaldimir was wearing, which was later removed by a fisherman in Norway, could be used to hold cameras or other tools. He also seemed to be interested in divers and collecting objects, according to Eve Jourdain, a marine biologist in Norway who started a feeding program to save Hvaldimir in 2019.
“I think there’s evidence that the cameras he was wearing weren’t for nature photography,” said Regina Crosby Haug, the founder of OneWhale, a crowd-funded organization that is dedicated to Hvaldimir’s well-being.
But researchers are wary of confirming Hvaldimir’s spy status. “We have no idea,” said Martin Biuw, a marine mammal biologist for Norway’s Institute of Marine Research.
What is clear is that Hvaldimir now seems to be lost and swimming in the wrong direction. And observers are uncertain about what should happen to him.
Since 2019, Hvaldimir has made regular appearances in Norwegian waters, but he was seen last week in a small town off the coast of Sweden. Belugas are normally found in the Arctic, and his southward travels concern scientists, activists and other experts who worry that he may run out of food or face danger in warmer waters that will grow increasingly busy with people as summer begins. Hvaldimir has previously been injured by bumping into boats and their propellers, researchers said.
The case also conjures the memory of Freya, a 1,300-pound walrus who was killed by the Norwegian authorities last summer after they determined that she posed a risk to onlookers. Whereas Freya became famous for lounging in the sunshine on decks and wrecking boats, Hvaldimir won’t do the same: Whales stay underwater.
Swedish and Norwegian officials have not announced any plans to intervene in Hvaldimir’s travels or to move him back to the Arctic, according to researchers. The Norwegian ministry of fisheries did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Jourdain, the researcher, said she recently traveled to see Hvaldimir to check up on him. “He looked great,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean his condition isn’t on the decline.”
The main worry, she said, is that Hvaldimir isn’t getting enough to eat. “I have no idea what he is feeding on and if he is feeding enough,” Ms. Jourdain said.
It is unclear why Hvaldimir is moving south. As a young male, it’s possible he is looking for a mate. He could also be searching for more food. “You can’t really read their body language,” said Anna Bisther, a marine biologist who has worked with killer whales in Norway.
Ms. Jourdain said: “He’s an Arctic whale, he is not supposed to go south. He is a mystery.”
It’s not the first time a beluga whale has accidentally found itself in unknown and dangerous territory. In August 2022, a malnourished beluga whale that had been stranded in the Seine river in Paris was euthanized after having trouble breathing while being removed from the river in an effort to return the animal to sea. In September 2018, a beluga whale appeared in the River Thames in London.
That also means that it’s not clear what to do with Hvaldimir. Sending him to live with other beluga whales in the Arctic could be dangerous, because he isn’t accustomed to being in the wild.
Other belugas would probably welcome him, Ms. Haug said, because they’re extremely social animals, but the Arctic also has predators, such as orcas.
“We don’t want to deliver an easy lunch to orcas by sending a tame whale who doesn’t know any better,” Ms. Haug said.
Beluga whales are a protected species, with about 150,000 globally, and they aren’t interested in people as their food. But Hvaldimir, who is estimated to be about 14 feet long and weigh about 3,000 pounds, could be dangerous to humans because of his size.
“Do not invade his space; he can potentially be dangerous if he wants to be,” Ms. Jourdain said. “And we know what kind of ending that will lead to.”