The images have something to make smile, even move. We see a beluga bring a rugby ball to a man on a boat. But the reality behind this viral video shot in the Arctic Ocean might not be so cute.
"It seems like Hvaldimir. This is an old beluga captive of the Russians who lives today in the waters of Hemmerfest, Norway, "said Quad Finn, a cetacean specialist and former marine mammal rescuer, in a tweet spotted by the Huffington Post.
"Alone, malnourished and wounded, (Hvaldimir) roams the oceans, looking for food and attention from humans," Ferris Jabr, a contributor to Scientific American and New York Times Magazine.
Because this behavior – playing with a ball like a house dog – is not normal for a wild cetacean. "Belugas are incredibly smart and sociable, but real wild whales are not used to rugby. They do not know what to do with a ball if you throw a ball at them, "said Ferris Jabr, saying he contacted the video's broadcaster to find out more. Contacted by us also, the latter said to have found this video in a WhatsApp group and not want to say more about the origin of the images.
Hvaldimir may have been trained by man as part of a Russian military program. When it was spotted for the first time, in April 2019, off the north of Norway, the marine mammal was strapped in a harness, which was marked "Equipment St. Petersburg", according to the site of the foundation dedicated to the animal. Hence his nickname, a play on words between "hval" ("whale" in Norwegian) and "Vladimir", the name of the Russian president.
"Unable to eat alone"
Accustomed to being fed by the "hand" of man, Hvaldimir would have become completely "dependent" and "unable to hunt and feed himself". "Not a single successful hunt could be identified in a week of observation (beluga) conducted by Norwegian scientists," says the website of the Hvaldimir Foundation.
"The video has been shared hundreds of thousands of times. But this is not an adorable or inspiring portrayal of the relationships between species. It's a tragic story, far too similar to Keiko and Luna, orcs that celebrity and isolation have killed far too young, "said Ferris Jabr, referring to the mammals that figured in the famous Save Willy.