On April 26, 2019, a beluga whale appeared near Tufjord, a village in northern Norway, immediately alarming fishermen in the area. Belugas in that part of the world typically inhabit the remote Arctic and are rarely spotted as far south as the Norwegian mainland. Although they occasionally travel solo, they tend to live and move in groups. This particular whale was entirely alone and unusually comfortable around humans, trailing boats and opening his mouth as though expecting to be fed. And he seemed to be tangled in rope.
Listen to This Article
Open this article in the New York Times Audio app on iOS.
When a commercial fisherman named Joar Hesten got a closer look, he realized that the whale was in fact wearing a harness: one strap girdling his neck and another gripping his torso just behind his flippers. Hesten contacted a local scientist, and word eventually reached the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, which dispatched an inspector, Jorgen Ree Wiig. After several failed attempts by Wiig and a colleague to free the beluga while onboard a dinghy, Hesten put on an immersion suit and plunged into the water. Though the whale was not quite as hefty as an average adult male of his species, he was still a formidable presence, by best estimates close to 14 feet long and about 2,700 pounds. Swimming beside him, Hesten managed to unclasp one of the straps. Together, they used a grappling-hook-like device to remove the rest of the stubborn harness.
A few days later, the beluga followed a boat to Hammerfest, one of the northernmost towns in the world, where he took up residence, frequently interacting with people in the harbor. News of the friendly white whale spread quickly. In early May, a video of the beluga went viral, eventually earning a spot on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” In it, several young women stand on a dock in Hammerfest, speaking excitedly with their hands outstretched just above the water. The beluga levitates to the surface in an upright position, as smooth, plump and silent as a balloon. There is something in his mouth — something rectangular. “Oh, my God!” one woman exclaims as the whale returns a smartphone her friend dropped in the sea. The women cheer and caress the whale, whose mouth continues to hang open. Later viral videos would show him stealing (and returning) a kayaker’s GoPro and playing fetch with a rugby ball. By midsummer, he had become an international celebrity, drawing large groups of tourists.
After escaping captivity, Hvaldimir took up residence in Hammerfest, Norway, where he quickly became an international celebrity.Credit…Joakim Eskildsen/Institute, for The New York Times
All the while, marine experts had been speculating about the whale’s origin. Clearly this animal had spent time in captivity — but where? The first major clues came from the harness: One of its plastic buckles was embossed with the words “Equipment St. Petersburg.” And it appeared to have a camera mount, hinting at reconnaissance of some kind. The beluga also knew how to closely follow boats and had a habit of wrapping rope around propellers, which could suggest specialized training. As several experts told media outlets at the time, the whale had most likely escaped from the nearby Russian Navy. Based on a poll of more than 25,000 respondents, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation christened the beluga Hvaldimir, a portmanteau of hval, the Norwegian word for whale, and the Russian name Vladimir.
The military conscription of a beluga whale might sound like a conceit plucked from less-than-convincing spy fiction, but it is actually a well-documented practice. Since the 1960s, Russia and the United States have trained dolphins, seals and other marine mammals to assist their naval forces by tagging enemy divers, detecting mines and recovering items from the seafloor. Satellite photos of Russian naval bases near Murmansk, not far from the spot where Norwegian fishermen first found Hvaldimir, reveal the type of sea pens often used to hold belugas. Audun Rikardsen, a professor of marine biology at the Arctic University of Norway, told me that international contacts have since confirmed that Hvaldimir belonged to the navy.
In the years since Hvaldimir first entered the global spotlight, the very qualities that make him so endearing — his intelligence, curiosity and charisma — have put him in perpetual danger. While traveling along the coasts of Norway and Sweden, he has inadvertently hooked himself on fishing lines and suffered multiple gashes caused by boat strikes. Incessant chewing of ropes and chains has worn his teeth to nubs. Overzealous spectators have swarmed him for photos, prodded him with brooms and thrown rocks in his vicinity to draw his attention. Some Norwegians have threatened to seek warrants to shoot and kill the beluga because he has damaged salmon farms or other underwater structures.
Hvaldimir is now at the center of a dispute over his welfare. Although he has become more independent since his early residence in Hammerfest, he has not completely relinquished human companionship. He has retained enough survival skills to feed himself, yet he has also ventured into warmer waters where there are no belugas, insufficient food and numerous threats. Even as he swims freely through the ocean, he is caught in a tangle of conflicting human ambitions, some noble, others misguided, nearly all distorted by inadequate understanding. Whether to intervene, and how to do so, remain contentious subjects among scientists, activists and government officials.
Many advocates would like to see Hvaldimir reunited with wild belugas or at least moved to a nature reserve. But rehabilitating a formerly captive whale is nothing like the triumphant leap to freedom in “Free Willy”; it’s more like helping a severely traumatized victim of abduction reintegrate with society. For creatures of such size and sentience, confinement to relatively tiny, sparse and lonely cells exacts a heavy physical and psychological toll. Like Hvaldimir, many captive cetaceans are in-between creatures: born to whales but raised by humans, not quite domesticated but no longer wild, suspended somewhere in the middle of instinct and compliance. Hvaldimir is a living bridge between their circumscribed existence and the nearly limitless one from which they were barred. What happens to him now — whether he becomes a rare example of successful rewilding, transitions to a more sedate life in a sanctuary or meets a tragic end like so many of his predecessors — will influence efforts to liberate the thousands of cetaceans still in confinement today.
Wherever Hvaldimir goes, he is followed by a small but passionate entourage of human defenders and devotees. One individual among them has become especially prominent and controversial: Regina Crosby Haug, an American filmmaker whose entanglement with Hvaldimir is largely a product of circumstance.
In 2019, after rekindling a relationship with her high school sweetheart — a Norwegian man who came to her Idaho hometown as an exchange student — Crosby Haug started splitting her time between Southern California and Norway. When she learned of Hvaldimir, she decided to take advantage of their proximity and visit him in Hammerfest, where she hoped to collect some interesting footage. Their first meeting took place near a salmon farm. “He swam up to our boat full of people with a fish he had caught and gave it directly to me,” Crosby Haug recalls. “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe he could make that kind of connection. I thought to myself, I think I just made a friend.”
The more Crosby Haug learned about Hvaldimir, the more she feared for his future. In addition to the daily dangers he faced in the water, there was little regulation of the crowds that flocked to see him. And some individuals in the oceanarium industry, Crosby Haug heard, might have their eyes on him. Over time, what began as a short upbeat video grew into a feature-length production — and a life-consuming mission.
In the fall of 2019, Crosby Haug created an informal advocacy group called Friends of Hvaldimir to raise awareness of the beluga’s plight. The following summer, she officially founded the nonprofit OneWhale, which is dedicated to protecting Hvaldimir. Several esteemed cetacean scientists — including Ingrid Visser, Diana Reiss and Roger Payne — joined the organization as advisers.
Other people in Norway were falling for the whale, too. In July 2021, Sebastian Strand, a burly, softhearted, 24-year-old diver and graduate student in marine biology, chanced upon Hvaldimir swimming circles in a harbor in Vevelstad, not far from his hometown. As he walked along the docks, Hvaldimir surfaced and approached him. Strand immediately called his friend and canceled their planned fishing trip. Instead, he spent the next eight hours interacting with the inquisitive whale, eventually entering the frigid water in just swim trunks and a shirt. By early 2022, Strand was working for OneWhale full time, in tandem with its network of volunteers.
Strand has since devoted nearly every day to watching over Hvaldimir and assessing his health, following him by car and boat, never knowing exactly where he might have to travel next and often sleeping in a vehicle, at a hostel or on a kind local’s couch. Depending on the situation, his work has entailed public outreach, crowd control and first aid. Over the past two years, Hvaldimir has very likely formed a stronger bond with Strand than with anyone else. “Hvaldimir has opened my eyes to a new level of animal intelligence,” Strand told me. “Over the time I have spent close to him, he has gone from a curiosity with a potentially tragic background to an individual I care about deeply. In many ways, I see him as a person.”
OneWhale’s efforts fill a vacuum created by the ambiguity of Hvaldimir’s situation. Because he is a formerly captive animal living in the wild, it’s not clear who, if anyone, should be responsible for him. Russia has never claimed ownership of Hvaldimir, nor has anyone else. No prominent international animal rights or conservation group has volunteered to oversee his welfare. In May 2019, when Hvaldimir was noticeably emaciated, a research group called the Norwegian Orca Survey set up a program to feed him frozen herring by hand. By fall, fecal samples indicated that Hvaldimir was learning to catch live fish for himself. Since then, the Directorate of Fisheries has maintained a position of mild indifference, insisting that Hvaldimir is a wild whale and can fend for himself.
When Crosby Haug founded OneWhale, she already suspected that chasing a whale through the ocean and trying to keep him out of trouble would not be a sustainable strategy. In parallel, she began pursuing an alternative solution: recapturing Hvaldimir in order to save him.
The controversy surrounding Hvaldimir is part of a much larger debate concerning the ethics of cetacean captivity. Humans have been wresting whales from the ocean and keeping them in tanks since at least the 1860s, when P.T. Barnum exhibited live belugas in Boston and New York. At the time, many Westerners perceived whales as “monsters” that could be hunted, displayed and discarded without misgivings. Since then, research has established that cetaceans are self-aware, empathic and highly intelligent beings, many of whom form lifelong relationships and maintain genuine forms of culture. A growing number of countries, including France and Canada, are now banning all future cetacean breeding and captivity. Some aquariums and marine-mammal parks have already agreed to retire and rehabilitate their orcas, belugas and dolphins.
Many of these changes have been spurred by increasing social pressure. In the past three decades, and especially since the harrowing 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” the public has become much more critical of cetacean captivity, which can result in both deformities and behavioral abnormalities. While there are few verified accounts of wild orcas harming humans, captive orcas have attacked trainers many dozens of times and in several cases have killed them. Yet an estimated 3,600 whales, dolphins and porpoises still live in confinement around the globe. Since at least the mid-2000s, scientists, conservationists and some oceanariums have been trying in earnest to establish what many experts agree are necessary and viable alternatives to standard captivity: open-water sanctuaries. Animals who can’t transition to life in the wild can live out their remaining years in a protected semi-wild space that dwarfs any tank — at least in theory.
An ideal cetacean sanctuary should be sheltered but still part of the ocean; it should be large, remote and untrafficked, yet still small and accessible enough to staff and manage. In other words, exactly the kind of place that humans like to keep for themselves. This was the predicament the Whale Sanctuary Project, an American nonprofit, confronted when it began searching for a site to establish a haven for orcas and belugas. Following years of staunch opposition from local residents and fishermen, the organization finally found one bayside town in Nova Scotia that welcomed their proposal for a 100-acre sanctuary. They are currently acquiring the necessary permits, a process that has spanned more than two years, and they don’t yet have any whales confirmed for rehoming. In 2016, the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced plans to develop a sanctuary for its six Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, but it has also encountered numerous hurdles, including projected storm surges and other dangers that climate change will ultimately impose on captive creatures with such long life spans. “We took a hard look at the Florida Keys,” says John Racanelli, president of the National Aquarium. “But the hurricanes of 2017 opened our eyes to the fact that we’ll likely be caring for a succession of dolphins across many decades. Our facility still needs to be functional in 2100.”
Merlin Entertainments, a global operator of theme parks and other attractions, has been developing an eight-acre beluga sanctuary in Iceland since 2012. In 2019, Merlin and its various partners transported two belugas from a Shanghai aquarium to a bay on the remote island Heimaey — the same bay that housed Keiko, the orca that starred in “Free Willy,” during his attempted rehabilitation in the late 1990s. As with parallel efforts, the environment has been problematic, especially in winter. Jeff Foster, a cetacean-welfare expert who worked with Keiko in Iceland, recalls wind gusts up to 200 miles per hour and strong waves that displaced nets. Equally challenging has been the complexity of cetacean psychology. One of the belugas is struggling to adjust to life in the sea, perturbed by the unfamiliarity of currents, tides and even rain. Because of her hesitancy, combined with harsh winter conditions and health troubles, the belugas have spent most of the past four years living in an indoor pool in a land-side facility.
Within weeks of meeting Hvaldimir, Crosby Haug began contacting every cetacean sanctuary she could find, but none were willing or able to house a fugitive beluga. Eventually she consulted Ric O’Barry, a renowned environmental activist. In a previous life, O’Barry captured dolphins for the Miami Seaquarium and trained them to perform in the 1960s TV series “Flipper.” In 1970, one of the show’s starring dolphins died in his arms after failing to resurface for air — an incident he interpreted as suicide. (Unlike most mammals, cetaceans must consciously choose to breathe.) The experience changed him forever.
O’Barry and his son Lincoln have since established what are, in some respects, the most successful cetacean sanctuaries in the world. Working with the Indonesian government and a local nonprofit, the O’Barrys created two permanent facilities in Bali and Karimun Jawa for the retirement, rehabilitation and release of former dolphin performers. The facilities, situated in sheltered coastal areas, consist of wooden sea pens in which dolphins unlearn their captive behaviors and develop the skills they need to survive in the wild, like hunting and deep diving. Since 1973, the O’Barrys have rehabilitated and released more than 20 dolphins in various parts of the world, a majority of which they are confident reintegrated with wild pods.
Crosby Haug initially asked Ric O’Barry to spearhead the effort to save Hvaldimir so that she could focus on her documentary, but he declined because he was too busy with his own projects and skeptical that the Norwegian government would offer the necessary permissions and assistance. Instead, he encouraged Crosby Haug to lead the campaign herself. Shortly thereafter, she approached the mayor of Hammerfest about creating a new reserve to rehabilitate and release Hvaldimir and other belugas. After all, Hvaldimir had already enchanted the citizens of Hammerfest, and the town itself was surrounded by pristine Arctic habitat. The mayor connected her with Katrine Naess, a destination developer for a local tourism company. “Regina was really good at selling this as an opportunity that could be a win-win,” Naess says. “Everyone wants to be the town that saved Hvaldimir.” In August 2022, Naess, Crosby Haug and several colleagues founded a nonprofit called the Norwegian Whale Reserve, which has been trying to realize their mutual ambitions ever since.
The project’s proposed location is a 200-acre fjord about 22 miles southwest of Hammerfest. Turning it into a reserve would require stretching thousands of feet of net across its mouth and securing it all to the seafloor. Such nets need to be flexible enough to accommodate waves and tides, while also remaining taut enough that they don’t bunch up and trap the animals. You might think a whale or dolphin would swim or jump over any barrier level with the ocean’s surface, but most cetaceans seem to have a mental block that prevents them from doing so. (The climactic leap in “Free Willy” was accomplished by strapping an animatronic whale to a rocket launcher.) “This is not a sea pen,” Naess says. “Our ambition is to make a beautiful open-sea reserve where there is no civilization, no traffic — ideally just pure nature. We want to set an example for the rest of world.”
Norway is a somewhat unlikely choice for a cetacean sanctuary. It is one of only three countries, along with Japan and Iceland, that continue to engage in commercial whaling. Polling suggests that most Norwegians have consumed whale meat at some point and that less than a quarter of the population supports an immediate end to whaling. There’s also a major bureaucratic obstacle: Norwegian law stipulates that a wild whale cannot be held captive unless it is part of a zoo or scientific study, neither of which is particularly compatible with a model sanctuary. Although the Hammerfest municipal council has not yet officially sanctioned a reserve, it voted in favor of conducting preliminary environmental tests of the proposed site. So far, the results are encouraging, indicating exceptionally clean water.
The largest sanctuaries in development can each hold 10 to 20 cetaceans at most, a tiny fraction of the world’s captive population. I asked Lincoln O’Barry why it was taking so long to do so little. He explained that among all performing animals, whales and dolphins — in particular, orcas — are uniquely lucrative. The estimated market value of a single captive orca is between $1 million and $10 million, many times the typical selling price of an elephant, a tiger or a great ape. “I don’t see any aquarium giving up that kind of asset,” he told me. “There have been sanctuaries and releases going on for all kinds of terrestrial species, and the whole oceanarium industry is trying to make it sound like it’s not possible. Whales and dolphins are basically the last animals on Earth that have to perform seven days a week until they die while living in a completely barren box without even a rock to hide behind.”
For cetacean welfare advocates, each passing year without an adequate network of cetacean sanctuaries permits the possibility of further tragedy. Last March, the Miami Seaquarium announced a legally binding agreement to relocate a female orca named Lolita, who had been in captivity since 1970, to a reserve in her native Salish Sea. Five months later, while still occupying an 80-foot-long tank in Florida, Lolita died from kidney failure. Her ashes were packed into a white box painted with an exact replica of her tail and topped with cedar boughs, flown to Washington State and given to members of the Lummi Nation, who consider Lolita, or Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut as they call her, to be their relative. In a private ceremony in September at a sacred site, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut finally returned to the sea.
Belugas were once thought to have a maximum life span of about 50 years. The latest research suggests that they can live for close to a century. Hvaldimir’s physical characteristics indicate that he is probably a young adult between 12 and 20 years of age. Had he remained in the wild from birth, he would have spent his life traveling the seas with his kin in groups of two to 10 and herds of more than 1,000; communicating through complex vocalizations that scientists have only begun to decode; and learning how to be a whale from his elders. He would have had a family, a dialect and the beluga equivalent of a name — a signature contact call — rather than another species’ pun. Instead, he was probably abducted as a calf, severed from cetacean culture and forced to undergo military training in exchange for food. In all likelihood, he either escaped from a damaged sea pen or was accidentally separated from the navy during a training exercise.
Last spring, perhaps because of a muddled migratory instinct or the drive to find a mate, Hvaldimir began an unprecedented journey south. In the past, following his departure from Hammerfest, he primarily lingered around remote salmon farms in northern Norway, where he learned to hunt the wild fish that gathered to eat spilled food pellets. He would often stay in a single location for months, allowing Strand to mediate relations between Hvaldimir and local salmon farmers. By April, Hvaldimir was speeding down the coast of Norway, rarely staying in any one place for more than a few days. On May 19, he reached Oslo. A few days later, he was spotted off the coast of Sweden — the first time since 2019 that he had crossed another country’s borders. All the while, he was swimming farther from food-rich and relatively tranquil waters toward larger and more dangerous harbors. At times, he entered industrial zones and murky canals — exactly the kinds of places in which solitary cetaceans tend to get stuck.
Even before his unexpected voyage, Hvaldimir’s behavior had been changing. Beyond his newfound wanderlust, he became less interested in following boats and hanging around humans compared with previous years. He appeared to be growing wilder all on his own. Because of this evolution, the escalating threat to Hvaldimir’s well-being and the absence of a suitable sanctuary, OneWhale revised its strategy. In partnership with the Norwegian animal rights organization NOAH, OneWhale is now petitioning Norway’s government to relocate Hvaldimir directly to Svalbard, an archipelago about halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, with the nearest resident population of wild belugas. OneWhale hired Jeff Foster to write a detailed report explaining how to transport Hvaldimir by ship or plane. The Norwegian fisheries director, Frank Bakke-Jensen, told me he is open to the idea if OneWhale and its partners can secure the necessary permits and funds.
This tactical shift is one of several recent developments that strained the already fraught alliance between Crosby Haug and her scientific advisers. Moving Hvaldimir to Svalbard may well be his best chance of reuniting with wild belugas, but several experts I interviewed expressed serious concerns about the plan. Beluga societies tend to be highly dynamic and accepting — wild belugas have even adopted lone narwhals — but the Svalbard population is small, insular and nonmigratory. Given Hvaldimir’s mysterious origins and how much time he has spent away from his kin, there’s no guarantee that the Svalbard belugas will welcome him, especially if he was caught in the distant Sea of Okhotsk, where the Russians reportedly acquire many of their military cetaceans. He might also introduce foreign diseases, pathogens or unfavorable genetic mutations.
Moreover, Svalbard’s remoteness and extreme weather make the expedition itself arduous and costly, not to mention stressful and disorienting for a beluga. Even if transport is successful, Hvaldimir would ideally require a period of acclimation on site before release, which would mean obtaining legal authorization to construct a temporary enclosure and maintaining it in potentially harsh conditions. In order to determine Hvaldimir’s fate, scientists would have to secure tracking devices to his dorsal ridge with steel rods, a procedure that sometimes causes significant wounds and infections.
“I’m always in favor of getting animals into a more natural scenario, but you have to do it on a case-by-case basis,” says Ingrid Visser, a whale scientist who is known for her studies of orcas and spent several weeks observing Hvaldimir. “It has to be driven by the welfare of the animal first and foremost, and it has to be backed by robust and compassionate science.”
Last summer, following intense disagreement over Hvaldimir’s future, a majority of OneWhale’s scientific advisers, including Visser and every other cetacean expert, resigned. By September, Strand had left as well. Several of OneWhale’s former members claim that the organization’s leadership demonstrated a pattern of miscommunication, recklessness and a disregard for scientific expertise. They say that Crosby Haug presented the Svalbard proposal to the Norwegian government without properly consulting them and that she did not clearly convey the regulatory hurdles to OneWhale’s plans, namely the Norwegian laws that would complicate the confinement of a wild whale, even in the context of rehabilitation. (Crosby Haug and Siri Martinsen, leader of NOAH, dispute this.) They further contend that she spent too much time interacting with Hvaldimir in the water despite lacking the appropriate training, potentially reinforcing his dependency on humans and inadvertently encouraging tourists to do the same. (Crosby Haug denies this as well.)
The motives behind Crosby Haug’s conduct became another significant point of contention. When Crosby Haug first traveled to Hammerfest, she did not intend to mix artistry with advocacy or to be a character in her own documentary. As her devotion to Hvaldimir deepened, however, she decided to explore their relationship on camera in a similar manner as the hit Netflix film “My Octopus Teacher.” Many of OneWhale’s scientific consultants worried that Crosby Haug’s attempt to steer Hvaldimir’s future and simultaneously fulfill her cinematic aspirations created a conflict of interest. Over the past year, their latent uneasiness grew into distrust.
“OneWhale unraveled because of one person,” says Stephen McCulloch, a longtime marine-mammal welfare specialist and former OneWhale adviser. “From my perspective, the problem was that you had a very controlling individual who had very little integrity or respect for a group of experts that really wanted to help. It became evident that Regina’s priority was to make a film with a satisfying ending — belugas swimming off together in the sunset. But you can’t film an animal that died because you didn’t understand enough about him.”
Crosby Haug denies prioritizing her film over Hvaldimir’s welfare and claims that there is a proactive effort to disparage her. She says that McCulloch and others who left repeatedly proposed interventions that were unacceptable to OneWhale. “It is appropriate that he and others are no longer associated with us,” she says, “because there are major differences in philosophy.”
After leaving OneWhale, Strand founded his own organization, Marine Mind, to independently monitor and protect Hvaldimir. Most of the experts who resigned from OneWhale, including Visser, McCulloch and Reiss, are now assisting Marine Mind, as are many of its former volunteers. Following these departures, OneWhale hired the marine biologist Anna Victoria Pyne Vinje as its new lead of science and research. The choice is controversial because Vinje, who strongly supports the Svalbard proposal, is also involved in a study on cetacean physiology that some conservationists have called “cruel and pointless.” The ongoing research entails stretching nets across a known migration route in order to trap young minke whales and using superficial electrodes to test their hearing. Vinje and her collaborators maintain that the study is justified because it may ultimately improve efforts to protect baleen whales from noise pollution. But critics counter that the experiments are unnecessarily stressful to the animals and point out that a loose net has already entangled and drowned a passing whale.
This past fall, Hvaldimir reversed his southward trend and crossed back into Norway, where he is living around salmon farms and steadily regaining weight. Many of the experts I interviewed, while struggling to identify a clear solution to Hvaldimir’s current situation, tentatively favored a kind of detached watchfulness, refraining from social interaction and intervening only in emergencies. In contrast, Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has long studied cetacean cognition and communication, thinks that Hvaldimir is a strong candidate for a sanctuary because he is still too habituated to humans and thus exposed to undue risk. For his part, Strand says he is undertaking a research-and-development phase to determine the best strategy.
In the meantime, tensions between OneWhale and Marine Mind are becoming somewhat disruptive. Hvaldimir has recently interfered with or damaged propellers, sensors and other equipment at the commercial salmon farms he frequents. In the past, employees on site were willing to deal directly with Strand to minimize Hvaldimir’s mischief. Now, pressured by rival organizations whose members make conflicting statements, some farmers have instead referred him to their companies’ public relations departments. “To be completely candid,” Strand told me, “it’s a mess.”
When I began reporting this article, Hvaldimir had not yet commenced his southward odyssey. By the time I connected with OneWhale on the ground in late July, he was already in Sweden. I had told my editors that, although there were no guarantees, the likelihood of meeting Hvaldimir was high. I was nowhere near prepared for just how challenging the trip would be. Because Hvaldimir does not have any tracking devices, the task of finding him depends on social media posts and a tip line. We spent more than a week searching for him by car, train and boat, hindered by strong winds and rough seas, often arriving at his last known location too late to encounter him. Exhausted, over budget and faced with the prospect of even worse weather in coming days, I reluctantly accepted that it was time to return home. Just one hour before I planned to head to the airport, while I was still aboard OneWhale’s rented catamaran, a report came in: Someone had spotted Hvaldimir in a harbor on a small island about 20 miles northwest of Gothenburg. By a stroke of luck, we were only 30 minutes away.
When we arrived at the harbor, Hvaldimir was gliding just beneath the surface — an indistinct milky shape, noiseless and ghostlike. Close to two dozen spectators wandered the docks, trying to get a better look. Within seconds of our arrival, Hvaldimir swam toward us. Crosby Haug stood near the edge of our boat in a black wet suit, waving and calling out in that lilting, high-pitched voice reserved for pets and infants. “Hvaldimir! Hello!” she said, as the whale swam directly below us. “I’m coming, baby, I’m coming. Stay with us.”
For the next hour, Hvaldimir followed our vessel and several others through the sheltered waters within the surrounding cluster of islands. At first, he remained largely underwater, breaching only momentarily to breathe. Gradually he began to bring his bulbous head above the surface, turning it from side to side as he inspected us with beady black eyes. His intelligence and curiosity were palpable. Whereas most whales and dolphins have fused neck bones and fixed expressions, belugas can flex their heads and alter the shape of their mouths, making them particularly expressive.
By the time Hvaldimir had returned to the central pier, a substantially larger crowd had gathered. Children and adults alike thronged the docks, dangling feet and hands in the water, hoping to touch the celebrity cetacean or at least get a photo. Hvaldimir was docile and playful, swimming right up against people’s shins, allowing them to pet his head and back and repeatedly offering the underside of his flipper for a high five — one of many tricks he presumably learned in captivity.
Crosby Haug pulled her blond curls into a ponytail and entered the water, swimming alongside Hvaldimir and explaining how to interact with him safely. “It’s OK to touch him,” she said at one point, “just not his eyes or his blowhole.” When other people tried to get in the water, she cautioned them. “We’re with his science team,” she said, “and it’s not recommended to swim with him. I’m just letting you know that. Today we’re seeing how much fat he has. You see this shallow part underneath his blowhole? That means he is losing too much weight. There’s not enough fish in the water down here. So we’re trying to get him back up to Norway.”
A little while later, Crosby Haug enticed Hvaldimir to stay near the catamaran, away from the crowd. She played with him for about an hour, throwing small white buoys for him to fetch and allowing him to nudge her around. Eventually she decided it was time to leave the harbor and encourage Hvaldimir to follow the catamaran north. We loosened the ropes tying the boat to the docks and motored away. Hvaldimir swam alongside us, undulating tirelessly just beneath the surface, the hum of the engines punctuated by his powerful exhalations. The farther we traveled, however, the more difficult it became to keep Hvaldimir at our side. He was easily distracted, veering away to inspect other vessels. Frustrated by repeated interruptions, Crosby Haug started to yell at passing boats, waving her arms and warning them to stay away.
Like many celebrities, Hvaldimir has lived a life defined by other people’s desires. Almost everyone he has met wants something from him: a snapshot, a story, a lifetime of submission. One of the most tragic aspects of his predicament is the discrepancy between how much he is adored and how little has been accomplished to secure his long-term welfare. Hvaldimir ostensibly offers our species a chance at redemption: a formerly captive whale, already moving freely through the ocean, requiring only some redirection to reunite with his kind. But the enormity of what we have done to him and so many other sentient beings like him severely complicates — and in some cases prohibits — such a reversal. Hvaldimir is so far displaced from his origins — geographically, ecologically, culturally — that it’s not clear whether a homecoming is still achievable.
From ocher bison painted on cave walls to the elephants in Europe’s medieval menageries to ongoing killer-whale shows and interactive dolphin pools, humans have long been enamored with other large, social and intelligent animals. We love them because they are simultaneously familiar and exotic — because they both mirror us and represent ways of being beyond our ken. We have often expressed our passion for such creatures by trying to possess them: by fitting them with collars, roping them into circuses and placing them behind glass. Even the military conscription of marine mammals is a kind of admiration, or at least recognition, of their extraordinary abilities. Yet the closer we have pulled such animals toward us, the more difficult it has become to deny the torment that our proximity inflicts. Perhaps the purest act of love is to leave them alone in the first place.
After traveling about eight miles northwest of the harbor where we first found Hvaldimir, he began to slow down and trail off more frequently, possibly losing interest, stamina or both. As we approached a town called Skarhamn, he vanished amid choppy water. Studying the ocean surface in the quickly fading light, you could easily mistake the white crest of a wave or a patch of foam for a dorsal ridge or fluke. On a hunch, we searched a nearby harbor, where we glimpsed Hvaldimir tugging a ship’s ropes. Seconds later, he slipped beneath the slate blue sea. With little recourse in the dark, we found a place to dock, hoping, rather helplessly, that the world’s most famous beluga — the half-wild whale we had chased for more than a week and who halfheartedly chased us back for all of an hour — might decide to stay with us through the night. The next morning, he was nowhere to be seen.
Ferris Jabr is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of the forthcoming book “Becoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life.” Some of his previous cover stories explored the social life of forests and the evolution of beauty in the animal kingdom. Joakim Eskildsen is a Danish photographic artist with a particular interest in nature, as well as social and political themes like those shown in his monographs “The Roma Journeys” and “American Realities.”