Beluga whale accused of being Russian spy highlights 'militarisation of the arctic'

The story of a beluga whale accused of being a Russian spy after it was found off the Norwegian coast has revealed the fascinating and developing area of intelligence services over the past 50 years.

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Paul Buchanan explained the history of the military’s use of marine mammals. Source: Breakfast

The whale was found strapped with a camera mounted on its back with the words ‘equipment of St Petersburg’ on it.

"The backdrop to this is that, as a result of rising sea temperatures, the arctic icepack is starting to break apart, and what's that doing is also opening sea lanes of communication which, commercially, is a very good thing," intelligence and policy analyst Paul Buchanan explained on TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

"However, it’s attracted military tension, and the militarisation of the arctic is now full-on. The Russians have actually put a marker under the North Pole – submarine marker – claiming the North Pole as their territory.

"Now, it won't hold water, pardon the pun, but the fact is that we're seeing the militarisation of the polar north – and that's where the whale comes in."

Mr Buchanan said the use of marine mammals have been "going on for at least 50 years", with the preferred animals used by the military including "Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins, California fur seals and beluga whales."

"The beluga whales are the smartest of the whales, and they're innately curious. They are used for mine clearance, for object recovery and for something known as ‘force protection’, which involves defending ports against enemy divers and that sort of thing."

He said one example of its use over the decades is the US' use of dolphins in the first Gulf War.

"They used them to clear mines, and they're used regularly in training exercises. Sea lions in particular are used because of their acute hearing and brilliant eyesight in murky conditions. They’re used to retrieve things like torpedoes and that sort of thing under water, They attach a clamp to the torpedo that has a reel on it - has a line on it -and the thing is reeled up, otherwise, the Navy wouldn’t be able to find them – the Russians have the same sort of dedicated units."

Mr Buchanan said he believed the beluga whale, a migratory mammal, was in training to see if it was fit for purpose before its escape.

"I think this particular beluga, in the middle of his training, said, you know, ‘I need to take leave. I need a holiday,’ and so somehow, it escaped its pen, and now we have the makings of a controversy.

"What's interesting is the Russians will not admit or deny that they have a marine mammal unit, much less multiple units. The Americans have five … so what I think is going on, if you think about conducting military operations in and around the North Pole, whales could do all three functions (mine clearance, object recovery and force protection) that I just mentioned and do them very well."