Friendly Beluga, an Escapee, Is at the Center of Controversy

'New York Times Magazine' digs into efforts underway to protect Hvaldimir
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 21, 2024 7:59 AM CST
Friendly Beluga, an Escapee, Is at the Center of Controversy
In this photo from April 2019, the beluga known as Hvaldimir accepts a treat in the waters off Norway. The harness seen in this photo, a remnant of his days in captivity, has since been removed.   (Jorgen Ree Wiig, Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries via AP)

It's possible you've seen images or video of a beluga whale known as Hvaldimir. Maybe, for instance, when Ellen DeGeneres showed incredible video of him on her show in 2019 returning a phone to a woman who had accidently dropped it in the sea in Hammerfest, Norway. That year, Hvaldimir—friendly and obviously trained—became something of a global sensation, writes Ferris Jabr in the New York Times Magazine. Though Russia hasn't confirmed, it's all but certain the beluga had been captured as a calf by the Russian military, "severed from cetacean culture and forced to undergo military training in exchange for food." Hvaldimir, now thought to be between ages 12 and 20, is believed to have escaped from a faulty sea pen before making his way south from the remote Arctic to roam the warmer coastal waters of Norway and Sweden. This wasn't a great decision.

Back then, Hvaldimir seemed overly dependent on humans for his food, but Jabr reports that he has gradually grown more self-sufficient—in other words, wilder. Still, he lives a solitary existence in regard to fellow whales, and the story digs into the controversial debate over how to best help him. Central to that debate is an American filmmaker named Regina Crosby Haug, who first encountered Hvaldimir in 2019 and has made it her life's mission to chronicle his journey and try to protect him. She now runs the OneWhale nonprofit dedicated to that purpose, but most of its scientific advisers have left in protest over Haug's backing of a risky plan to relocate him to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, which has the nearest population of belugas. Haug's critics accuse her of a conflict of interest, pushing a dangerous plan in the hope of a happy ending for her film, an allegation she adamantly denies. Read the full story. (Or check out other longforms.)

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