Back in April some fishermen outside of Hammerfest in northern Norway encountered a very friendly beluga whale that was trying to rid himself of a camera harness against the side of their boat. Maybe you’ve heard the story?
The fishermen helped removed the harness, which was marked “St. Petersburg,” and after seeing how well trained the whale was, apparently used to interacting with humans, they concluded the obvious: the whale was a Russian spy defecting to Norway.
So the national news station took a poll and the country decided to name him Hvaldimir (hval is Norwegian for whale).
When I first heard this story I had one burning question: what happened to the camera Hvaldimir was wearing?!
A little research told me that he was just wearing a camera harness, with no actual camera.
But could they maybe find the camera? Or had he actually been wearing the camera but the Norwegian government was keeping it a secret as they investigated further? The American in me knows not to trust governments. And what would Hvaldimir have been filming? Is there an important underwater operation going on around Hammerfest?
So many questions. And all the wrong questions.
Because once I thought about it some more I realized that of course, there was no camera.
I mean duh, there never was any camera.
I’ve watched enough spy movies to see that the mysterious camera harness served as the perfect cover.
First of all, the harness gave Hvaldimir an excuse to get in with the locals. They saved him from the harness, so now they feel a certain responsibility for him. To quote the Norwegian Orca Survey, “he’s our responsibility now.”
What’s more, Russia has even used the harness as proof that they aren’t involved, because “if we were using this animal for spying do you really think we’d attach a mobile phone number with the message ‘please call this number’?” It’s a good point, how convenient.
He also went on to add that they make no secret of having military dolphins for combat roles, in case you were wondering if this is even a thing that happens.
But the harness is also a great distraction. It’s been months and apparently Norway is still investigating the origins of the harness.
I mean, it’s not that surprising – this is Norway.
I recently had my phone number stolen by a rival mobile network so that my sim card didn’t work anymore, and when I asked my network about it they just said, well, maybe you should just switch to their network if they’ve already taken your number. Getting me back as a customer was apparently too much effort.
I can just imagine Russia asking its Norway experts how to distract the Norwegians and they came up with a couple of pieces of fabric. Yup, that will keep them busy for months.
But of course most importantly, the harness suggested that Hvaldimir’s sole purpose was to swim around and record on his GoPro, without which he is totally harmless. Now he can just make friends with Norwegian researchers and do tricks for crowds in the harbor and no one will suspect a thing.
Like I said, it’s the perfect cover.
Now, I don’t know exactly how he’s gathering and sending his information – does anyone really understand how sonar works? But as someone who spent years and years and years trying to gain even a basic grasp of the Russian language, I’d say if anyone has the ability to decode whale it’s the Russians.
Which is all to say, I don’t trust Hvaldimir one bit.
Fast forward a few months to this past weekend and I had decided to take a spontaneous trip up north, stopping in the world’s northernmost town – Hammerfest! Shortly before noon a small crowd began to gather around the harbor and I heard someone say that it was Hvaldimir’s feeding time.
Two researchers from the Norwegian Orca Survey came and after tapping the water a bit Hvaldimir showed up!
I looked around at the crowd wondering what sort of information Hvaldimir could be gathering from us right now. Could it be that there was just one person in particular who lived in Hammerfest that Hvaldimir was watching? It seemed like there were mostly just tourists in the crowd though.
And then it hit me. Hvaldimir wasn’t the only remarkable thing at the Hammerfest harbor that day.
This was a large crowd of people, and I had heard at least five different languages while waiting for our beloved beluga to make his appearance. And while yes, they had all gathered to see Hvaldimir, he wasn’t the sole reason they had traveled all the way up to Hammerfest, a town of about 8,000 people in a remote corner of northern Norway.
What were they all doing there? Or more importantly, how did Norway manage to attract so many tourists to such remote and seemingly unremarkable places? What was their secret?
That must be what Hvaldimir is trying to find out.
In fact just a few days after I saw Hvaldimir in Hammerfest, he made his way to Alta, yet another popular tourist destination in Norway. He has more secrets to uncover!
And what country wouldn’t want to know the secret to Norways’ success with tourists?
Norway attracts a huge amount of tourists each year and one in ten jobs in Norway now depend on tourism. Why is everyone come to a freezing cold, super expensive country with horrible weather? How does Norway do it?
Well, Russia (or whatever country Hvaldimir is actually from), why don’t you spare this beautiful beluga and let a travel blogger break it down for you instead:
First of all, Norway is beautiful. Like, unbelievably beautiful.
And then northern Norway in particular makes for an exotic destination with the northern lights in the winter and the midnight sun in the summer.
Hammerfest might seem like an ordinary little town, but the surrounding landscape is undeniably extraordinary. Even the drive out of town is beautiful, and now in the summer it’s full of reindeer. Reindeer!
And then if you drive a bit farther out to the national scenic route between Kokelv and Havøysund you will really understand what all the fuss is about.
But of course I know what Russia is thinking – we have the midnight sun and northern lights too! Our landscape is beautiful! (It really is.)
Plus Russia is a way cheaper travel destination than Norway.
I traveled for a month through Russia on $12 a day, including accommodation and transport. In Norway $12 will buy you a gas station hotdog and a bottle of water. Unless you read my blog post with 10 Norwegian meals for under $10.
I mean, you could argue that the Gulf Stream makes Norway a much more comfortable place to experience the Arctic because of the mild temperatures it offers, but actually I don’t think that’s the real reason why Norway is so popular.
There’s something very special about Norway that goes deeper than its pretty looks. It’s something in Norwegian culture, in the Norwegian spirit, that has more and more people falling in love with this country each year.
It sounds sentimental to say, but I really do think that one of Norway’s greatest attractions is that in a time when it often feels like the world is literally falling to pieces, Norway’s relative stability and functioning social system is comforting.
Whenever I say that to a Norwegian they roll their eyes and try to tell me how many things are wrong with Norway, and I just roll my eyes back because those problems aren’t even first world problems.
First of all, did Hvaldimir mention that the main researcher taking care of him is a woman?
I’ve traveled through over 80 countries, and Norway is one of the few places I’ve been where gender equality is actually a thing.
In fact the last time I went back to the US I was shocked by how men treated me, and how my female friends expected to be treated by men – like, men paying for a date is still a thing? And big thanks to the guy who kindly explained the Internet to me after my friend mentioned that I work as a blogger. I’ve built a six-figure business from this, but thank goodness someone finally explained to me what a blog is!
Speaking of things the US lacks, education in Norway also happens to be free, and of a high standard. The crowd in Hammerfest was full of Norwegians, but the researcher addressed us all in English because there were foreign tourists there too, and of course all Norwegians speak English. This also makes Norway a super easy place to travel.
I already mentioned the beautiful Norwegian nature, but what’s actually most special about Norway is that no one appreciates that beauty more than Norwegians. I’m head over heels in love with Norway’s landscape, but still every time I go for a hike with a Norwegian I’m amazed by their love for the outdoors. And it really is contagious!
But mostly, Norway is really, really lucky. It’s annoying, but also kind of amazing to witness.
Norway is sort of like those people on social media who are super beautiful and maybe come from a rich family so they can buy all the things but they also seem really normal and down to earth, so while we sort of hate them we also all follow them and are so fascinated by their lives that they become professional influencers and get to make a living just for being their lucky selves. That is Norway.
Ugh sorry, Russia, that’s probably not what you wanted to hear.
But maybe now you can let your beluga retire to a quiet Norwegian fjord.
If it makes you feel better, I’ve loved every trip I’ve taken to Russia. Really my only suggestion would be to make that visa process a little easier. I was right by the Russian border a few days ago and would have loved to drive into Murmansk, if I could have.
Free visas and free whales, that’s what the world needs now.
You can follow Hvaldimir here.