From Russia with glub? Beluga with harness suggests new Cold War getting ... weird

Old and busted: Sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads. New Russian-spy hotness: Beluga whales with GoPros. Norwegian fishermen discovered a tame Beluga whale swimming in their waters with a very odd accessory — a harness and a GoPro. Counterespionage officials think Russia has fitted this whale and others to do a little spying in its waters, but is this just another fish tale?

Russia may be resorting to more unconventional methods of espionage these days, dragooning Mother Nature into helping the country extend its spying capabilities. That’s what Norway officials think, at any rate, after the capture of a Beluga whale that was wearing a strange Russian harness — presumably that a GoPro could fit into — that didn’t seem to be related to scientific work.

Norwegian fisherman came across the whale off Norway’s northern coast last week, according to local news reports. The whale seemed unusually tame and relaxed around humans, with Norwegian officials ultimately concluding — there may be a somewhat nefarious reason for that. The reason being, the whale has spent a lot of time around elements of the Russian military.

A BBC report quotes a Norwegian biologist who explained that the harness — which was found to be wrapped tight around the whale’s head and included a pouch to hold a GoPro camera — was not something that Russian scientists would typically use. The biologist, professor Audun Rikardsen, said he’d been told that by a Russian colleague. Also raising a red flag — the fact that Russia has a naval base in the area where the whale was found.

“A Russian colleague said they don’t do such experiments, but she knows the navy has caught belugas for some years and trained them — most likely it’s related to that,” Rikardsen said.

That sounds so weird that it’s difficult to argue against it. The Washington Post chips in with more information that tends to underscore the potential for espionage:

Researchers say that the harness could have carried weapons or cameras, triggering new speculations about a sea mammal special operations program that the Russian navy is believed to have pursued for years. Although the Russian Defense Ministry has denied the existence of such a program, the same ministry published an ad in 2016 seeking three male and two female bottlenose dolphins and offering a total of $24,000.

In this part of Europe, nobody would be surprised if the latest Norwegian discovery did indeed turn out to be the fallout of a military experiment gone wrong. Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has been behind creepy reminders of the massive military apparatus lurking on Europe’s eastern outskirts: mystery submarines; unidentified jets that almost crashed with a passenger plane in at least one instance; and strange troop movements.

But numbers released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on Monday prompt the question of whether Russia is punching above its weight. Although the United States accounted for 36 percent of global military expenditures last year, Russia spent 3.4 percent — less than rapidly growing China, as well as Saudi Arabia, India and France.

It’s tough to ignore that a Beluga harness and a GoPro costs a bit less than an aircraft carrier or a submarine, either of which could be suited to recon activities. It’s also true, as NBC News notes, that militaries have made use of sea mammals before. Usually that’s to conduct specific tasks unsuited at all to humans.

For recon, though, humans and their machines are a lot better suited for those purposes than Beluga whales, who swim where they want rather than get directed into areas that are most sensitive to NATO, or even fishermen. Perhaps the Russian navy figured a harness and a GoPro was such a minimal investment that it was worth doing on the chance of dumb luck seeing something on the GoPro that was valuable to naval intelligence. But wouldn’t that require either retrieving the whales while the intel still had value, too? And knowing when that might be the case? Surely these harnesses didn’t have the power or range to transmit back to a Russian base in real time, not with that small size.

This idea has other holes in it, especially in the link back to Russia. If Vladimir Putin wanted to secretly weaponize Beluga whales, would he have put “EQUIPMENT OF ST. PETERSBURG” on the harnesses? Why not just add, “If found please return to FSB, post paid”? The embossed harness suggests a non-military purpose, perhaps even some sort of half-baked media project to film from the whales’ perspective. Has anyone asked National Geographic about the harnesses yet?

Norwegian marine expert Martin Biuw, who originally told reporters that the Russian navy was behind the beluga wave, backed off just a tad later. He tells ABC News that the media may have stretched the story a bit too far, but still can’t come up with much of an explanation:

“All I know is that both Russian and U.S. military have had active marine mammal programs in the past, but I have no detailed knowledge. I don’t see why they would equip those whales with harnesses,” he told ABC News. “I would assume that harnesses are generally only used for short-term deployments, as they may cause chafing and other discomfort over longer time periods. What I can say for almost certain is that no researchers in Norway, and almost certainly not in Denmark/Greenland, use this method of attachment for any research related work. Whether scientists in Russia do, I have no idea.”

The behavior of the Beluga whale, however, is a “clear sign” that the animal had been trained and the inscription on the harness means it is “safe to assume the whale is indeed from Russia,” Biuw said.

“I wouldn’t say the behavior is normal, even though whales from time to time are curious and friendly,” Biuw noted. “One of the videos shows the whale bobbing its head out of the water and opening its mouth. This is a clear sign that the animal is trained, as this behavior is usually associated with begging for food from the trainer.”

He added, “Some in the media have indeed had a field day with this, and stretched it a bit too far I think.”

It’s a fun story, and who knows? Until someone claims confirmable ownership of the beluga project, it’s at least possible. Until then, someone better get us sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads just in case. Throw me a bone here …