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About

       Hvaldimir

HIS STORY

26 April 2019

Hvaldimir was observed off Tufjord, in Finnmark by fisherman Joar Hesten. This marked Hvaldimir's very first (reported) observation in Norwegian waters. The whale then had a harness attached to its body. As a response and to assist the animal in disentanglement, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries sent experts Jørgen Wiig and Yngve Larsen onsite. The team first tried to unfasten the harness from a boat, but the operation failed each time due to challenging access to the clips. Eventually, and after entering the cold waters with the whale, they managed to detach the tight strap. The harness was labeled with "Equipment of Saint Petersburg" and had an equipment mount attachment. Based on these elements and geographic considerations, it was speculated that the whale was a lost 'spy' animal, trained and used by the Russian Navy. Though, this was never confirmed. 

In the following days, the whale was seen again in the harbour of Tufjord, both by the dock and following local fishing boats cruising in and out the harbor. The locals, especially Linn Sæther, were instantly charmed by the adorable whale, and special interactions with people started occurring.

Tufjord

Hammerfest

Photo credit: Jørgen Wiig

30 April 2019

On April 30th, the whale followed a sailboat during its entire 5-hour (50 km) cruise to Hammerfest. Its harbour was about to become Hvaldimir's temporary home for nearly 4 months. 

Shortly after the whale arrived in his new location (Hammerfest), much enthusiasm and excitement spread among the local community and unique interactions with the beautiful animal multiplied. Videos showing the whale being petted, performing tricks and fetching objects went viral on the web. The general public, through a poll launched by Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, named the whale "Hvaldimir" - "Hval" being a whale in Norwegian and "-dimir" in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

 

However, was the story as "fun" as it seemed? Based on the harness and highly sociable behaviour, it appeared clear that the whale had been used for human benefits and was most likely conditioned to be hand-fed. If so, such behavioral conditioning could have resulted in the whale being dependent on people and not able to successfully hunt and feed itself.

7 May 2019

After a week of reported observations of Hvaldimir in the industrial harbour of Hammerfest, we (Norwegian Orca Survey) arrived onsite to assess the situation. More specifically, the goal was to observe and conclude on Hvaldimir's apparent condition, any potential natural feeding and identify the risks he was exposed to if staying in Hammerfest. To be able to monitor Hvaldimir's behaviour 24/7, we routinely attached a camera-tag on his back using suction-cups. The inbuilt multiple sensors recorded Hvaldimir's dive depth, speed and orientation, and video footage was useful to identify prey capture attempts, if any.

Several days of observations and tagging failed to reveal any successful feeding. This seemed to be supported by the whale's rather lean body condition. Most of the day, the whale was seen interacting with people at the dock or logging at the surface among the parked ferries in the inner part of the harbour. Based on these observations, and supported by international experts, we urged the need to take action to ensure the whale's welfare and survival, and before the situation reached a critical point of no return. Urgently, Hvaldimir needed to be fed and recover some condition.

Plot of some of the diving data sampled by the camera tag attached with suction cups on the back of Hvaldimir in May 2019, and used to monitor his behaviour.

Tagging was conducted under permit (FOTS).

Assisted by experts and veterinarians from various institutions, we quickly developed and submitted feeding protocols to the Norwegian authorities. After the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries issued an official approval to feed Hvaldimir on May 16, and in collaboration with Hammerfest Kommune, we initiated the feeding program. Because of the troubling setting of conditioning such animal to be fed in a busy harbour, strict protocols were followed in order to promote Hvaldimir's safety and to minimise some of the expected adverse consequences. The first grant, generously allocated by the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund allowed securing the financial resources necessary to initiate the intervention. The funds were used to immediately transport our boat from Andenes to Hammerfest, purchase equipment to establish the feeding station and order the first batches of fish. After we presented several (dead thawed) fish species to Hvaldimir, we could finally conclude on the diet he was apparently used to take: Atlantic herring. Considering that herring constitutes a major part of the food base provided to cetaceans in managed-care, Hvaldimir only accepting herring for food supported further his origin from a zoological facility.

Photo credit: Karin Karlsen

HIS STORY

26 April 2019

Hvaldimir was observed off Tufjord, in Finnmark by fisherman Joar Hesten. This marked Hvaldimir's very first (reported) observation in Norwegian waters. The whale then had a harness attached to its body. As a response and to assist the animal in 'disentanglement', the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries sent experts Jørgen Wiig and Yngve Larsen onsite to join Joar Hesten. The team first tried to unfasten the harness from a boat, but the operation failed each time due to challenging access to the clips. Eventually, and after Joar Hesten entered the cold waters with the whale, he managed to detach the tight strap. The harness was labeled with "Equipment of Saint Petersburg" and had an equipment mount attachment. Based on these elements and geographic considerations, it was speculated that the whale was a lost 'spy' animal, trained and used by the Russian Navy. Though, this was never confirmed. 

In the following days, the whale was seen again in the harbour of Tufjord, both by the dock and following local fishing boats cruising in and out the harbor. The locals, especially Linn Sæther, were instantly charmed by the adorable whale, and special interactions with people started occurring.

Tufjord

Hammerfest

Photo credit: Jørgen Wiig

30 April 2019

On April 30th, the whale followed a sailboat during its entire 5-hour (50 km) cruise to Hammerfest. Its harbour was about to become Hvaldimir's temporary home for nearly 4 months. 

Shortly after the whale arrived in his new location (Hammerfest), much enthusiasm and excitement spread among the local community and unique interactions with the beautiful animal multiplied. Videos showing the whale being petted, performing tricks and fetching objects went viral on the web. The general public, through a poll launched by Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, named the whale "Hvaldimir" - "Hval" being a whale in Norwegian and "-dimir" in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

 

However, was the story as "fun" as it seemed? Based on the harness and highly sociable behaviour, it appeared clear that the whale was most likely conditioned to be hand-fed. If so, such behavioral conditioning could have resulted in the whale being dependent on people and not able to successfully hunt and feed itself.

7 May 2019

After a week of reported observations of Hvaldimir in the industrial harbour of Hammerfest, we (Norwegian Orca Survey) arrived onsite to assess the situation. More specifically, the goal was to observe and conclude on Hvaldimir's apparent condition, any potential natural feeding and identify the risks he was exposed to if staying in Hammerfest. To be able to monitor Hvaldimir's behaviour 24/7, we routinely attached a camera-tag on his back using suction-cups. The inbuilt multiple sensors recorded Hvaldimir's dive depth, speed and orientation, and video footage was useful to identify prey capture attempts, if any.

Several days of observations and tagging failed to reveal any successful feeding. This seemed to be supported by the whale's rather lean body condition. Most of the day, the whale was seen interacting with people at the dock or logging at the surface among the parked ferries in the inner part of the harbour. Based on these observations, and supported by international experts, we urged the need to take action to ensure the whale's welfare and survival, and before the situation reached a critical point of no return. Urgently, Hvaldimir needed to be fed and recover some condition.

Plot of some of the diving data sampled by the camera tag attached with suction cups on the back of Hvaldimir in May 2019, and used to monitor his behaviour.

Tagging was conducted under permit (FOTS). Data processing by Dave Cade (www.davecade.com).

Assisted by experts and veterinarians from various institutions, we quickly developed and submitted feeding protocols to the Norwegian authorities. After the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries issued an official approval to feed Hvaldimir on May 16, and in collaboration with Hammerfest Kommune, we initiated a feeding program with the on-site support of Lindsay Rubincam, a marine mammal training consultant. Due to the need for financial resources to support this urgent intervention, solicitation for funding was generated among the local community and professional organisations.  The first grant, generously allocated by the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund allowed securing the financial resources necessary to initiate the intervention. The funds were used to immediately transport our boat from Andenes to Hammerfest, purchase equipment to establish the feeding station and order the first batches of fish. Furthermore, strict protocols were developed in order to promote Hvaldimir's safety and minimise the potential for adverse consequences resulting from human interactions in a busy harbour.  

Photo credit: Karin Karlsen

 

OUR RESCUE

                 EFFORTS

Norwegian Orca Survey, along with the intermittent support from Lindsay Rubincam, committed to be present in Hammerfest 24/7 to ensure the feeding and monitoring of Hvaldimir and to assist the town in managing the delicate situation for both people's and the whale's safety. This commitment was made as a temporary solution to give Hvaldimir a chance at survival, while waiting for further developments on long-term solutions from the Norwegian authorities. 

The local community was incredibly welcoming, supportive and eager to help Hvaldimir. People provided us with additional resources that were crucial to the implementation of the logistics and the feeding program as fast as possible. The four to five daily feeding sessions also gave us the opportunity to assess Hvaldimir's 

physical condition, check for potential injuries and build a trusting relationship to aid in his care. To assist with voluntary physical examinations and prepare for handling, should an intervention be necessary, basic training was implemented. Such training and relationship development proved extremely valuable and in Hvaldimir's best interest when, in June 2019, he inadvertently hooked himself on a fisherman's line and the team had to access his left flank under voluntary control to remove the hook. His level of previous conditioning and trust became apparent when Hvaldimir would voluntarily participate in the routine attachment of a camera tag (with suction cups) on his back by his caretakers.

 

After a 3-day critical illness was observed in late-May, and in order to protect Hvaldimir's health and well-being, a code of conduct was also introduced. Upon our recommendations, the harbour authority further restricted access to the docks, which instantly promoted the whale to spend more time exploring his natural environment and reduced his time roaming in the busy path of the inner harbour. Educational feeding sessions were given daily to the general public to raise awareness of Hvaldimir's critical situation and to aid in his protection.

The initiative received much support throughout the summer, with additional grants received from Hammerfest Kommune, Hammerfest harbourEquinor, the Polar Bear Society, G. Hagen and private donations. The rescue initiative was also sponsored by Fiskernes Agnforsyning SA, Tromsø with 1 ton of frozen, recently locally caught, herring. Smart Hotel and Qa Spiseri both offered lower-costs solutions that made our long-term stay and commitment to Hammerfest possible. Many people volunteered their time to help take care of Hvaldimir and keep track of his well-being.

After just a few weeks of efforts, Hvaldimir had put on weight, displayed higher levels of energy and seemed to spend more time exploring his habitat. Camera-tagging also suggested a growing interest in live fish and possibly developing hunting skills, even though effective prey capture and consumption could not be confirmed. After the initial month of consistently feeding approximately 18-20 kg of herring per day, the team initiated a variable daily food amount to to promote natural foraging and hopefully stimulate his autonomy in feeding.

However, the long-term plan for Hvaldimir was unknown and there were still no suggestions from the authorities. Winter in Arctic Norway can be pretty harsh: freezing temperatures, no direct sun light for several months, strong winds and rough seas. The harbour of Hammerfest was also a busy location with boat traffic and also listed as one of the most polluted harbours in Norway. Therefore, relocating Hvaldimir to a safer environment was becoming urgent.

 

Together with the local municipality and other local players, we aimed at creating Hvaldimir Foundation. Registering a separate entity dedicated to Hvaldimir's care would assist in long-term fund raising and management of the project. Time was also at starting looking for a sheltered and quieter fjord nearby that could be considered for the whale's relocation, possibly in fall. There were several options and shortly, developing a plan and sorting out logistics became the goal to work towards. However, and before we could achieve these goals, the story suddenly took another turn on July 19. 

On the evening of July 19, Hvaldimir was nowhere to be found.  After several hours spent scanning the area, his sighting was finally reported. Hvaldimir had gone to the island of Seiland, located just across the harbour of Hammerfest. In the following days, and because there were no possibilities for logistics associated with the feeding program and care schedule on the remote island, several attempts were made to guide him back to Hammerfest. None of these succeeded and therefore, the team of care-givers had to follow Hvaldimir's movements through multiple remote locations to attempt to feed him and monitor his condition. Surprisingly, the whale started refusing his fish and became seemingly more independent, although still actively seeking contact with people. By early September, and after 1.5 month, Hvaldimir had swam a minimum of 650 km. Monitoring of his activities, and analysis of fecal samples generously sponsored by the Marine Biodiversity, Exploitation and Conservation laboratory (Sophie Arnaud-Haon and Babett Guenther, University of Montpellier) confirmed that he was able to feed himself. Because Hvaldimir continued to travel to many different and often remote places, we were not able to maintain the same amount of effort to continue the monitoring program. However, thanks to dedicated local volunteers, we have been able to keep track of Hvaldimir's whereabouts, general behaviour and apparent condition.  

Photo credit: Christel Beate Jorilldatter

19 July 2019

Hammerfest

Seiland

 

WHAT ABOUT

           HIS FUTURE?

Hvaldimir has been free-swimming since July 19, 2019, apparently feeding himself and being completely self-sufficient. However, due to restricted possibilities for monitoring, his main food source(s) has remained completely unknown. Visual assessments indicated an acceptable level of weight and body condition, although more lean since leaving Hammerfest in July. To date, Hvaldimir has visited the areas of Hammerfest, Seiland, Sternøya, Alta, Tromsø, Skjervøy and Harstad.

 

Although foraging may not be a problem any longer, it appears clear that Hvaldimir has strong social needs which results in this continued interest in humans and their activities. Beluga whales are indeed extremely social animals by nature, living in complex societies. Hvaldimir's solitary existence, although not unprecedented among wild belugas, raises concerns about his social needs and the relative impact on his individual welfare. As beluga whales are fairly uncommon in northern Norwegian coastal waters, the odds that he meets another group of belugas appear very thin. Multiple observations of Hvaldimir in the near vicinity of porpoises, white beaked dolphins and Minke whales have revealed no interest in interacting with other cetaceans so far. 

Hvaldimir's story is an extremely complex case and his future remains largely uncertain. Whilst we successfully led his rehabilitation in Hammerfest and monitoring throughout his first year in Norway, more resources and a larger panel of experts would be necessary to develop any further action. 

 

CODE OF

      CONDUCT

As Hvaldimir is swimming free and visiting new places, he is also receiving considerable attention every day. The adorable whale has thus become very popular in northern Norway and has melted many people's heart. This being said, and as much as we all wish for a close encounter with him, there are rules to observe to safeguard his welfare.

Hvaldimir may have long been dependent on people for his food. Remember that during his 4 months spent in Hammerfest, a substantial amount of effort and resources was invested to give him a chance at recovering and being more independent. This step was crucial to boost his odds to survive in the harsh Arctic marine environment. It is therefore important that people do not try to feed him, otherwise risking to promote the reverse trend and new dependence to humans. 

Hvaldimir is not a pet and should not be treated as such. Let's not forget that Hvaldimir is over 3.60 m long and may weigh close to 500 kg. Like us, he seeks to be understood and may become irritated or frustrated, leading to aggressive behaviours in some situations. Whilst Hvaldimir appears friendly to people for the most part, we have also witnessed brutal head movements and even biting on some occasions. Such observations should be taken seriously as they may be precursors of more severe aggressive behaviours. To prevent these situations, it is important to respect Hvaldimir and give him the space he needs.  

Here are our advices on how to behave around Hvaldimir:

  • Do not try to feed him

  • Do not chase him 

  • Do not throw objects at him

  • Reduce your speed (boat) if cruising near him and always be attentive of his position near propellers

  • Let him 'choose' to come to you

  • Do not pet him in the mouth, this could be dangerous for you and for him, as it is potentially a means to transmit bacterial or viral disease

  • Do not pet him close to his blowhole; this area leads to his respiratory tract and, again, could result in the transmission of disease

  • Be calm and avoid screaming  

  • Watch your kids both for their safety and Hvaldimir's

  • We do not recommend entering the water with him as he has been known to display aggressive behaviour towards swimmers and divers on occasion

Hvaldimir is protected, like any other animal, under the Norwegian law on animal welfare. Any inappropriate or harmful behaviour should be reported and may lead to sanctions. 

We are all responsible!

 

KEY PLAYERS

The rescue efforts wouldn't have been possible without the generous support of these sponsors, other private donations and the dedication of many volunteers. To all, thank you!  

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NORWEGIAN ORCA SURVEY

Norwegian Orca Survey is the leading research organisation on Norwegian killer whales. Using ground-breaking technologies, and being year-round in the field, we deliver innovative knowledge with results available from scientific publications. We also respond in animal welfare cases. 

CONTACT US

post@norwegianorcasurvey.no

Norwegian Orca Survey

Andenes, Norway

+47 950 14 960 (English speaking)

+47 949 83 803 (Norwegian speaking)

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