A Russian 'spy whale' is having too much fun to leave Norway

"The whale was really friendly and came up to us and started opening its mouth, and just checking us out," a Norwegian official said.
  • Share this —
By Tony Brown and David K. Li

LONDON — This suspected Russian spy is having a whale of a time in Norway.

A beluga whale — found in Arctic Norway with a camera harness strapped to its head — has been joyously seeking out human contact and is in no hurry to swim back to Mother Russia, or anywhere for that matter.

"The whale was really friendly and came up to us and started opening its mouth, and just checking us out," said Jorgen Ree Wiig, an official with the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries. "We were trying to talk to it."

Wiig told NBC News he's rarely seen a whale so confidently seeking out human interaction: "That’s really untypical."

The whale became a worldwide espionage sensation after Norweigan fishermen first spotted it last week with a harness wrapped near its head.

Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a harness that could have fitted a small camera, marked with the words “Equipment St Petersburg,” raising suspicions the whale was working as a Kremlin spy.

More likely, Wiig theorized, this whale is from a notorious whale operation in Siberia that once trapped massive maritime mammals for sale to aquariums. That so-called "whale jail" has since been disbanded with its operators haphazardly dumping evidence.

"I don’t know if you’ve heard about the whale sanctuary in Siberia, it’s a whale sanctuary that was a little bit illegal I think, and it was shut down because it caught a lot of whales last year, like orcas and belugas," Wiig explained.

"Yeah, and it was gonna be like prosecuted by the Russian government. So this whale might also be, like somebody had it in a containment and they got afraid and just let it loose because they didn’t want to be prosecuted."

Biologists hope the best for this personable whale, and hope it meets with a better fate than Keiko, the orca, which was the star of the 1993 hit movie "Free Willy."

Keiko, which was aquarium-raised, was freed in Iceland but couldn't fully adapt to the wild and died less than 1 1/2 years later near Norway.

"That was a whale that lived in captivity for almost its whole life and it was released and then it went to Norway and then it died after a while," Wiig said. "So I hope that doesn’t happen here, of course."

Tony Brown reported from London, David K. Li reported from New York.

Correction (May 3, 2019, 07.00 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated what the whale was wearing. It was found with a camera harness strapped around its head; the harness did not include a camera.

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a London-based editor on NBC News' foreign desk.

David K. Li

David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.

Reuters contributed.