Tourists are threatening the life of an “escaped Russian spy whale” who has made his home in Norway’s northern waters, conservationists say.
Hvaldimir made international headlines after he was discovered in the town of Hammerfest in 2019 wearing a harness labelled ‘equipment St Petersberg’.
Two years on, the young beluga whale has become a sensation amongst Instagrammers keen to show-off their experiences with the "celebrity whale".
Sadly the actions of these selfie-trophy-hunters are becoming “more and more aggressive”, according to US documentarian Regina Crosby, an advocate for the whale’s protection.
“What happened the first summer is everyone felt uncertain about getting into the water with him,” she told Yahoo News from Norway.
“As soon as somebody tried it once and posted it on their Instagram, then it became a goal for all the other people who were maybe only planning on getting a selfie with him.
“Now they want the more upgraded experience of swimming with him diving with him having the better content.”
Ms Crosby fears the mating-age-male could accidentally harm someone and then get the blame for the incident.
“He would presumably be euthanised as a danger to public, even though these are people who are willingly going in the water with him,” Ms Crosby said.
GoPro cameras 'threatening life' of escaped whale
Hvaldimir’s friendly nature has led to reports he is “magical” and loved by all of the community, much to the frustration of Ms Crosby who has witnessed his health decline and his life threatened.
The “Hollywood-style” reports of a happy whale living his best life in Europe after escaping captivity in Russia are “just simply not true”, she argues.
Ms Crosby has documented reports of Hvaldimir being enticed into heavy water traffic and encouraged to follow boats for kilometres, leaving him lost and exhausted.
Her biggest concern stems from a learnt behaviour he was likely taught by his captors, but continues to display.
Greeting tourists by opening his jaws wide open, well-meaning but naive sailors have a habit of placing random objects inside his mouth, including rough wooden boards and fishing spikes.
"He comes up to people and opens his mouth, and I think people just don't know what to do, so they grab the closest thing they think could be a toy," Ms Crosby said.
"I don't think anyone's trying to hurt him on purpose."
Mouth injuries pose a bigger risk to Hvaldimir’s health than boat propellers, with GoPro cameras being one of his favourite items to play with, Ms Crosby warns.
“It may seem like a funny story [to have Hvaldimir] wrestling your GoPro with his mouth, but in the end, this is what the vets are looking at most closely as his most life-threatening injury today,” she said.
The ongoing impact of foreign objects in Hvaldimir’s mouth has seen his teeth deteriorate from “perfect little white cones” to “dark yellow and worn down to the nub”.
Hvaldimir could cause environmental disaster, leading to death threats
Salmon has become one of the free swimming domesticated whale’s favourite foods, and he has a habit of frequenting the farms where they are raised.
Farmers have a responsibility to ensure that the captive bred fish do not escape and flood into wild ecosystems, causing an environmental disaster.
To combat threats including “shooting him will solve the problem”, Ms Crosby founded a volunteer group called Team Hvaldimir which liaises with the salmon industry.
“I created (the group) because the problems were getting to a critical point where something bad could have easily happened already,” she said.
“Something bad could still happen.”
Hope for captive whales around the globe
Despite the immediate threats to Hvaldimir’s safety there is some hope on the horizon, as advocates work to create a nature reserve where he could swim freely, but buffered from the public.
Ms Crosby believes the “cold hard truth” is that he’s not mentally ready to be introduced into a wild population of beluga whales and he needs time to rehabilitate.
Belugas are known to be highly social creatures, and Hvaldimir has been witnessed showing signs of stereotypic behaviour, believed to be a result of isolation from his kind.
The proposed marine refuge will likely be constructed in Hammerfest and there are hopes that once established, other captive whales could find a better existence there too.
Ms Crosby thinks the best candidate to join Hvaldimir would be a whale named Bella who lives in a shopping mall in South Korea.
She was first displayed in 2014, as one of three whales captured in the Arctic Ocean off the Russian coast.
Since the other two died in captivity, Bella has been left to languish in the tank alone.
Plans have been announced to return her to the ocean, but as she continues to wait for her freedom, animal welfare advocates have reported she is showing signs of stress and aggression.
"I don't know what his future holds, maybe he will lose the programming that he's had from humans," Ms Crosby said.
"Maybe he will repair, I don't want to underestimate this whale, and he needs a chance at that."
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