Wild whales don’t play fetch with rugby balls and . . .
Belugas do not live in Antarctic waters.
Likely many of you have seen the video of the Beluga Whale “playing fetch” with a rugby ball.
The following is a screen grab from one of the many, many news agencies that enabled this video. I added the text “What on Earth is going on here” and posted it on social media on November 8th to try to stop the very erroneous information being spread.
My initial text accompanying the post was: “This one makes my head and my heart hurt. Likely you’ve seen it, the video of a “wild” Beluga playing catch with a rugby ball? Two points not being addressed by those reporting this: (1) This is being reported as being in Antarctica but Belugas don’t live in Antarctica. (2) This is not natural / spontaneous behaviour. This is a whale habituated to humans and boats which is anything but heart-warming.”
Then I went digging. The pieces came together very quickly as they would have had news agencies been able to fact-check appropriately. I also received information from organizations and individuals in Norway confirming details.
I am now sharing the information here as it better allows me to provide sources and update when further information becomes available.
What I learned:
The video is from near Hammerfest, Norway.
The whale is “Hvaldimir” the Beluga found off northern Norway in April of 2019 with a harness marked “Equipment of St. Petersburg” (as confirmed by the Hvaldimir Foundation). This whale has been referenced as “the Russian spy whale”. Likely Hvaldimir’s training would have included being rewarded with food when retrieving objects.
There are efforts to have Hvaldimir adjust to being in the wild. Initially this included the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries issuing official approval for the Norwegian Orca Survey to feed him since he was malnourished. I found a Norwegian news item that referenced that he has been hit by a boat at least once.
Danah Divers, are a research body linked to the Save Our Seas Foundation. There is email correspondence to the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries apologizing for recent misguided behaviour while in northern Norway. These actions perpetuate habituation of the whale and reduce his chances to feed for himself and, as aforementioned, are contrary to Norwegian efforts to rehabilitate the whale.
The identity of the person initially throwing the ball is known to me but I am choosing not to share the identity. The logo on the jacket is from Danah Divers / the Danah Explorer.
Above: Screen grab from the Hvaldimir Foundation’s website – solid resource for the history on this whale and the efforts to rehabilitate him to the wild.
How did this get erroneously get connected to South Africa and Antarctica?
I cannot find the original posting of the video. I did originally see if with very little text but that version now seems to have been deleted. Where it really seems to have taken off is when re-uploaded (without credit / source) on Facebook by two non-associated people:
November 7th, initially posted with the text “Playing fetch with an Irrawaddy Dolphin as you do. How sweet is this?” Yep, the Beluga was referenced as being an Irrawaddy Dolphin by the person who re-uploaded the video from who knows where. She then edited the text to: “Playing fetch with a Beluga Whale as you do. How sweet is this?!” A further edit added the text: “The video is of a South African crew enjoying the company of a Beluga whale, while sailing near the North Pole. I did not take this video, nor do I know who took the video, but wanted to share an extraordinary moment caught on camera.” Since November 11th, the post has been updated to acknowledge the whale is Hvaldimir.
November 6th, someone used the video to associate it with South Africa winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup on November 2nd. He framed the video as being: “Beluga Whale celebrating the Springboks victory somewhere close to the South Pole! Spot the Cape Town build Gemini Craft and the South African accents.” The accents and jargon of the people on the boat are indeed South African, the brand of the boat is South African and the ball is indeed a 2019 official Rugby World Cup ball. But, this was NOT filmed near the South Pole.
Above: The range of Beluga Whales – only in Arctic seas, NOT near Antarctica. Source: Delphinapterus leucas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017
Why is this important?
I understand of course that the video would have appeal to many and that not all would immediately realize that this cannot be wild behaviour.
As stated so well by some on my social media post:
“Thanks for that info. People, like myself, cannot help but want to imagine some sort of kinship and bond with animals and we go all mushy when we see this sort of thing, but nevertheless, this story did tickle my brain as being somehow off or wrong. Thanks for scratching that tickle.”
“I am a land person. I don’t know much about marine creatures, but learn a lot from following scientists and researchers on social media. I know wild land mammals play with things (the foxes in my yard jump on the neighbor’s trampoline and play with his dog’s toys, and we’ve caught the bear playing on the swing set.) so while playing fetch seems unlikely, for someone who knows little about these animals (where they live, what they do etc) I didn’t know to be outraged or even concerned . . .“
Why I have made the effort to “solve” this however is because truth, science and facts are at risk. This is an example of that reality and of the atrophying of fact-checking by media agencies. A very quick search for the range of Beluga Whales would have led to the “clue” that this was false information.
Therefore, there is the dire need for critical thinking. We live in a world of overwhelm and “fake news” being using as a defence rather than a truth. There are dizzying news cycles where so much is just a tweet and/or share away. Compounding this is that technology allows us to photoshop reality to further misguide, misinform and manipulate.
If we do not realize this to be current reality, we are unwilling participants in the spread of misinformation. Where we need to be a force insisting on fact-checking and quality reporting, instead we inadvertently fuel media being under-resourced, under-researched and prone to “click-bait. We become complicit in feeding the misinformation monster and how that shapes attitudes and actions.
I also believe it is important to understand that interactions with humans as shown in this video cannot be spontaneous nor natural and to realize how such content promotes the want of proximity that does not serve wild animals.
This is a further attempt to stand for facts in a time that it is critical to do so.
Colleen Gorman of “The Orca Project”, Facebook post November 8, 2019:
“Remember that video of the beluga going all over the Internet chasing a football yesterday?￼ Well my friend Colin or Quad_Finn on Twitter, a marine animal researcher who I reached out to right away, and I, were right the whole time. This is a whale from Russia that was trained by the military and then got loose. The girl . . . got 700K+ shares and millions of views copied (stole) the video with no credit given – for attention. She should think twice before stealing video and spreading it around. It’s not cute and it’s not funny . . . they should know better than playing around with a beluga and trying to make it seem like they’re out to play with humans. They never travel alone . . Hvaldimir the Beluga is like Luna (L98), the orphaned juvenile Southern Resident orca who also sought out humans for social interaction instead of his conspecifics. As with Luna, such familiarity and dependence on humans will all but inevitably end in tragedy.”
TimesLive, November 7, 2019, “Bok gees has even reached a beluga whale in the Arctic Circle“:
“The voices in the clip are clearly South African . . .The man throwing the ball for the beluga is wearing a tracksuit with the logo of the Danah Explorer, a marine research vessel which is currently in Norwegian waters. TimesLIVE tracked down the vessel to the harbour at Tromsø, Norway — but not the people who created the video. A number of South African divers and researchers work with the Danah Divers, a research body linked to the Save Our Seas Foundation. The SoS-linked Danah Explorer and Danah Divers share a logo.
The boat from which the ball is thrown is a small landing craft with the logo of Cape Town boatbuilding company Gemini Marine visible. Gemini marketing manager Gerhard Neethling has said he would investigate the boat’s possible links to his company.”
Quad-Finn, November 9, 2019 in a Twitter post: “The Danah Explorer is a yacht owned by Abdulmohsen Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh. He’s the founder of the Save Our Seas Foundation. The logo on the back of jacket of the man throwing the rugby ball to Hvaldimir is that of Danah Divers”
IFLScience!; November 11, 2019; “That Viral Video Of A Beluga Whale Playing Fetch Is Probably Not What It Seems”
Good News Network; November 13, 2019; “Hope on Horizon for Escaped ‘Russian Spy Whale‘ After Video of Its Rugby Skills Goes Viral”
“Many conservationists have shunned the more recent viral video as a whimsical depiction of a grim situation—but its online fame has helped to create hope for Hvaldimir on the horizon . . .For the last three months, Advocates for Hvaldimir has been keeping track of the cetacean’s activity in order to make sure that he is faring well on his own. Regina Crosby, who is a co-founding member of the group, says they are now working with two other environmental groups to try to relocate Hvaldimir to a different oceanic region so he can potentially reintegrate with a pod of belugas for a better chance at survival . . .Crosby and Advocates for Hvaldimir have since begun collecting donations from the beluga’s internet fans in order to finance his relocation. Since the Norwegian government recently granted permission to the wildlife advocates to relocate the famous cetacean, they are now hoping to continue working with legislators to transport Hvaldimir this winter.”
NRK Finmark, September 12, 2019, “Hvaldimir is ill and has been injured: – Several have thrown planks and other things after him” (translated article on the negative impacts from human interactions with Hvaldmir).