When Norwegian fishermen spotted a beluga whale last week, there was nothing that immediately indicated a national security threat.
But when the whale defied normal behavior and continued to harass their boats, the fishermen spotted a strange harness, wrapped around the whale's body. "Equipment of St. Petersburg," read an inscription on the harness they later recovered, according to Norwegian media outlets.
Researchers say that the harness could have carried weapons or cameras, triggering new speculations over a sea mammal special operations program that the Russian navy is believed to have pursued for years. While the Russian Defense Ministry has previously denied the existence of such a program, the same ministry published an ad in 2016, seeking three male and two female bottlenose dolphins, offering a total sum of $24,000.
Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has been behind a series of 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.
Should the Norwegians want to learn more about training sea mammals like beluga spy whales they could do worse than asking their U.S. allies. After all, it was the U.S. that spearheaded the use of sea mammals for military purposes in the 1950s, at the time backed by a budget its foes continue to be jealous of until today.
According to the U.S. Navy, its dolphin and sea lion recruits are used to locate sea mines, retrieve objects from the ocean floor and scout the underwater approaches to beaches. They are not, however, involved in offensive operations.