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This week on Nature League, Brit reports on some mysterious breaking news about beluga whales as potential Russian spies, and the history of military marine mammals in general. Get your Nature League pin here!


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Nature League is a weekly edutainment channel that explores life on Earth and asks questions that inspire us to marvel at all things wild. Join host Brit Garner each week to learn about, connect to, and love the amazing living systems on Earth and the mechanics that drive them.
We've got breaking news today in a segment we call: When Good Whales Go Bad.

On April 25th, 2019, Norwegian fishermen spotted a beluga whale off the coast of Inga in northern Norway. The whale was incredibly friendly and interested in the boat and the fishermen.

No big deal, you might say. A sweet, social whale, you might say. Whale whale'd be wrong!

The truth is far more sinister. It was wearing a harness with a slot for a GoPro camera whosie-whatsit, and once a team got the harness removed, they found these words on the inside of it: Equipment of St. Petersburg.

That's right people. Forget any other reports you might have heard about in the news. The real collusion is between Russia and whales. [CHEERY INTRO MUSIC].

While everything I just said may have seemed like a joke, all of that information was actually true. As of early May, scientists in the area have concluded that the most likely origin of this beluga is a program within the Russian navy. A report in 2017 noted that Russian president Vladimir Putin had reopened several former military bases on Russia's Arctic coastline.

In addition to that, the investigation reported that the Russian navy was training beluga whales, seals, and bottlenose dolphins, specifically for military actions in these Arctic regions. When I read this headline, I definitely thought it was a joke at first. But then I sort of checked myself and realized I was only laughing because I was picturing the sharks with friggin' laser beams in Austin Powers and the two albino scout dolphins in one of my favorite movies, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”.

But in reality, using beluga whales for espionage isn't that far-fetched. Beluga whales are cetaceans, which include whales and dolphins -- species with some of the most complex intellects and social interactions on Earth. And if you're not too familiar with this species, the easiest way to identify them is by their white coloration.

In fact, “beluga” is derived from the Russian word for “white”, which definitely checks out. Being lightly colored is most likely due to living in an environment dominated by snow, ice, and other similar selective pressures. In the case of belugas, their environment is the Arctic Circle, which places them in perfect proximity to Russian and other coastlines.

While their range and distribution, intellectual capacity, and highly social behavior makes it seem like beluga whales would be the perfect Russian operatives, some accounts note that other species were better for the job. For example, as reported by The Guardian, the Russian ministry of defense purchased five bottlenose dolphins in 2016, most likely for military use. Dolphins and seals have been trained in Russia to both carry tools and detect items of interest in the ocean, like undersea mines and torpedoes.

And apparently according to Russian research institutes, bottlenose dolphins and seals are preferable to beluga whales when it comes to training and working. In one of the best lines I've heard in a while, they claim that belugas just don't have the same “high professionalism” of seals. Like, while I'm in no way discounting the abilities of seals, I couldn't help but laugh thinking about seals at a board meeting… “Oh yes, they just don't have the high professionalism of seals.” “Bark, bark, bark!” Anyways, this whole beluga whale Russian spy thing totally captivated me, and while the origin of this particular individual is unknown as of filming this episode, the whole thing has made me curious about the history of marine mammals in defense and military operations.

And man oh man, am I grateful I looked this up! I found some absolute gems, as well as a fascinating and storied history. The first bit I found is from over a century ago.

During World War I, German U-boats were notoriously troublesome for the British, and by 1916,. Britain was open to innovative suggestions. And nothing says innovative like reaching out to circus entertainers!

Apparently, a man named Joseph Woodward reached out to the British navy to suggest using his trained performing sea lions to detect U-boats by sound and then signal their location. The only part better than the poster is what happened next: after successful miniature trials in swimming pools, two of the sea lions were put to the test out in the open water. And instead of chasing a navy submarine that they were supposed to track, they instead... opted to chase some passing schools of fish.

Fair enough. Other instances were a bit more successful. In 1953, my boy Jacques Cousteau here published a book called “The Silent World”.

In that publication was one of the first documentations of echolocation in dolphins. After this discovery, and as the Cold War continued to intensify, several military groups began to think about using dolphins as military personnel. In fact, a 1988 article in the journal Science mentioned the following description of dolphins as published by a sonar manufacturer: “A self-propelled marine vehicle, or platform; with a built-in sonar sensor system suitable for detecting and classifying targets; and carrying an on-board computer... capable of being programmed for complex performance.” ...

Yeah, they were talking about dolphins. Interestingly, in 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the U. S. had been set into law; however, in 1986 Congress authorized the collection of 25 marine mammals per year for “national defense purposes” outside of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

A year later, the Chief of Naval Research stated at the time that the U. S. is “aware of the Soviets' increased efforts in the mammal area” and that this increased effort is “basically to catch up to where the U. S.

Navy is today”. Classic Cold War. Nowadays, the U.

S. military has the Navy's Marine Mammal Program detailed online for the general public. In their words, they, “train bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to detect, locate, mark, and recover objects in harbors, coastal areas, and at depth in the open sea.” They mention that similar to using service dogs to detect explosives on land, the U. S.

Navy has trained dolphins and sea lions “as teammates for our Sailors and Marines to help guard against similar threats underwater” since 1959. The wild thing is, I didn't even think about the most common law enforcement non-human animal in our service until halfway through researching this. The companionship and guarding activities of sea lions reminded me that, hello, police forces throughout the U.

S. use German shepherds, a breed of dog, for backup force and detection of dangerous or suspicious items like explosives or drugs. And this is what's really cool about this topic. While humans are incredible and uniquely capable of certain things, we rely on non-human species for some of our most vulnerable and sensitive tasks.

It reminds me that other species are simply better at certain things than us. Even with 21st century technology, species like dolphins and sea lions outperform underwater drones for most military ocean missions. There are certainly ethical issues regarding the usage of other species for human tasks and the care of non-human individuals working in these fields.

However, the fact that these working relationships exist should remind us to be thankful to work alongside these species at all. Thanks for watching this segment of Nature News here on Nature League! Have you come across something life on Earth related trending in the news?

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