The feeling of dread punched her in the stomach as she watched her iPhone slip out of her pocket and into the water in slow motion.
But as the fading screen disappeared into the ocean, something big started to emerge from the deep. And it was coming up fast.
Inga Mansika had heard the whispers of what lurked in the ocean off the coast of Norway.
The rumors were so fierce that believers turned out in droves to catch a glimpse of the monster from the deep. But when someone claimed to have spotted something near her hometown of Hammerfest, Inga was desperate to experience a close encounter of her own.
Inga had always been fascinated by the ocean ever since she was little. She’d even swum with dolphins once. So as soon as she heard about a beluga whale being spotted nearby, she was eager to book a boat trip to tour the coast.
But she never imagined what would happen once she saw it – especially considering where the whale really came from.
Inga created a Whatsapp group to get enough friends together so they could hire a boat to head out in search of the whale. She’d seen a few blurry pictures, but she just had to see it with her own eyes.
Soon enough, there were enough of them to book the boat. But in all her excitement, Inga had failed to take a basic safety precaution that she would soon regret.
As the boat sailed away from the dock, Inga had her eyes keenly trained on the water, desperate to catch a glimpse of the rumored whale.
“Come away from the rail!” Inga’s friend told her. The marine life enthusiast hadn’t realized she was practically hanging over the edge. And at that moment, she was suddenly well aware of the risk she’d taken.
It felt like it was all happening in slow motion. Inga had leaned over the railing to such a degree that her iPhone – loose in her pocket – began to slide out.
Her eyes widened as she felt the device graze her thigh on the way out. She reached her hand out to catch it, releasing her grip on the railing as the waves crashed against the front of the boat.
Inga wasn’t fast enough. The iPhone slipped through her fingers and plunged into the drink. She felt sick, knowing she had no insurance or money to pay for a new one.
But against all odds, that wasn’t the last she would see of the phone. As the screen faded into the depths, something else was emerging close to the boat.
The beluga whale was first seen in Hammerfest by Joar Hesten, who had been a fisherman in the town all his life.
On a warm spring afternoon, Joar was out on his boat casting bait for his typical haul of mackerel, herring, and cod. But he never imagined he would attract something far more dangerous.
Joar had seen whales in the area, but when this particular sea creature came right up to the side of the boat, he knew he was in a situation that he’d never faced before.
Rather than continue reeling in the fish, Joar was mesmerized by the whale that was only a few feet from his face.
The thing that struck Joar as odd about this whale was that it was alone. Beluga whales typically swim in pods, so he assumed this one must have been lost.
He watched the creature disappear beneath the boat and reappear again. But Joar suddenly felt the deck shake beneath his feet. The whale had the boat’s ropes that were hanging off the side in its teeth – and it wasn’t letting go.
As Joar tried to wrestle the ropes from the creature’s jaws, he spotted something he had never seen on an aquatic mammal before.
There was some kind of harness wrapped around the whale’s body. And when he was finally able to work out what it was, rumors started to spread through the little fishing town like wildfire.
Months later, Inga had come face to face with the very same whale, wearing the very same harness, looking up at her from the side of the boat.
She had been desperate for a sighting of the beluga. But now she was close enough to count its teeth, she regretted the whole idea. Until she noticed something strange about it herself.
The whale had spotted the smartphone plunging into the deep and pushed it back up for its owner to pick up.
Inga was dumbstruck. Without a second thought, she snatched up the expensive hardware and slipped it back into her pocket. But then she saw the harness – only this time she was able to see what was written on it.
Written on the custom-made harness, which had all sorts of attachments for underwater cameras, were the words “Equipment of St Petersburg.”
While it wasn’t the most usual thing for a whale to approach a fisherman alone, it was even more curious considering the fact that evidence pointed to it having come all the way from Russia.
What was a beluga whale doing all the way out here? What had it been filming and where were the cameras now? And why was its behavior so tame?
After taking as many snaps as he could, Joar knew he had to call in his find to the authorities for further investigation. But word quickly got out.
The media didn’t hesitate to report on the fact that a whale had turned up in Norway with a Russian harness strapped to it.
Norwegian military officials were quick to patrol the area in search of the whale – not to mention locals like Inga who managed to get footage of the creature when it kindly saved her phone.
“Everyone was so surprised. We almost didn’t believe what we saw,” Inga recalls of meeting the beast.
But fortunately for Inga, the moment was captured forever when her friends managed to record the kind gesture on camera so they could prove they weren’t seeing things. And Inga wasn’t the only one happy to see the footage later that day.
“We laid down on the deck to look at it and hopefully get the chance to pat it,” Inga explained in an interview. “I had forgotten to close my jacket pocket and my phone fell in the ocean.
“We assumed it would be gone forever until the whale came a few moments later with my phone in its mouth!” Inga’s friend posted the video of the incredible encounter and, unsurprisingly, it went viral.
Hvaldimir – the name given to the creature after Vladimir Putin and the Norwegian word “hval,” meaning “whale” – has since become an internet sensation, attracting over 50,000 likes on Instagram.
Unfortunately, the iPhone was beyond repair due to water damage. Nevertheless, Inga was ecstatic to have it back. “I was super happy and thankful that I got my phone back,” she said, laughing. But what does this celebrity whale’s future hold?
The whale had clearly become accustomed to human contact. Sightings flooded in from other fishing boats, but still, the mystery remained. Until one man looked hard at all the evidence.
Belugas are well known as reclusive species, but this whale was clearly seeking out fishing boats and human contact. Many experts reached the same conclusion: Hvaldimir had been trained. Then, there was the strange matter of the harness. One beluga whale specialist voiced everyone’s darkest suspicions.
Dmitry Glazov, deputy head of a beluga whale program at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, had a wild theory.
He believes that the mount on the harness was designed by the military to hold a camera. But why would the Russian Navy use a beluga whale for special operations? And just what was it capable of?
It may seem far-fetched, but it wouldn’t be the first time marine animals have been enlisted for the military. A similar beluga whale was seen back in the 1990s, and it had somehow managed to reach The Black Sea.
“It was tame, it would come to us and you could give him fish and pat him on the head,” explained Pierre Béland, a research scientist in marine biology.
“It turned out [the beluga] was coming from a naval facility on the Russian side in the Crimea,” Pierre said. But there was something curious about the whale – its teeth had been filed flat.
“We surmised they had filed its teeth so it could take a big object in its mouth, such as a magnetic mine that it could stick on the hull of a foreign ship for military purposes.”
Beluga whales are highly intelligent animals and easily trainable due to the fact that they tend to react calmly in stressful situations. Evidence was mounting that this was no ordinary whale.
Professor Audun Rikardsen from the Arctic University of Norway said he thought the Russian Navy in the nearby city of Murmansk was involved. Meanwhile, people flocked to see the unusually friendly animal. But one particular encounter made the runaway an instant celebrity.
“The concern is … what do we do with it? Because it’s ‘ours’ now,” said a senior officer with the Royal Norwegian Navy. Professor Audun Rikardsen voiced his concerns, too. “This is a tame animal that is used to getting food served, so that is why it has made contact with the fishermen,” he said.
“The question now is whether it can survive by finding food by itself. We have seen cases where other whales that have been in Russian captivity are doing fine.”
Hvaldimir’s harness has since been handed over to Norway’s special police security agency (PST) for further investigation, and the Russian Defense Ministry has denied using the whale in any special operations. But Professor Audun Rikardsen remains unconvinced.
“We know that in Russia they have had domestic whales in captivity and also that some of these have apparently been released. Then they often seek out boats,” he insisted. Who knows when the next spy whale will turn up!