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A beluga whale — a suspected Russian spy — has reappeared after four years

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To news now of an alleged Russian spy turning up in Sweden. He's white, about 15 feet tall, weighs around a ton and is an excellent swimmer - a beluga whale. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, locals are convinced the giant mammal has been trained by the Russian military.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The beluga whale that locals have named Hvaldimir – Hval being Norwegian for whale - first showed up four years ago along the Norwegian coast, says marine biologist Sebastian Strand.

SEBASTIAN STRAND: The very peculiar thing with Hvaldimir is he arrived with a harness strapped to him which read property of Saint Petersburg. That, of course, sparked a whole bunch of theories on his origins.

SCHMITZ: The most prominent one, Hvaldimir was trained by Russia's military for intelligence purposes.

STRAND: He is without a doubt trained because he responds to - or used to, at least, respond to common Russian training signals. And several of the behaviors that we see him repeat even to this day are things that we know that the military whale programs also train the whales to do.

SCHMITZ: Russia has neither confirmed nor denied Hvaldimir is one of their own. But both the U.S. and Russia are known to have military training programs incorporating aquatic mammals. Strand works for the nonprofit One Whale, devoted to caring for Hvaldimir. In fact, when we reached him, he was on a boat following the whale.

STRAND: Yeah, saw him probably 30 seconds ago.

SCHMITZ: Strand and his colleagues are worried about Hvaldimir because it's clear he's been trained by humans and has a hard time finding food by himself. So he's constantly seeking human interaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE BLOWING AIR)

SCHMITZ: There are viral videos of Hvaldimir picking up a camera dropped by a kayaker, another picking up a woman's phone. Strand thinks Hvaldimir is lonely.

STRAND: A big part of our goal is also reuniting him with others of his own species.

SCHMITZ: And if he ever does, he can leave his spying career for the humans behind him. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.