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What is it like for a whale to be taken out of the wild and placed in captivity? I think the closest analogy is alien abduction. Imagine a spaceship tearing you away from your home planet and plopping you down in a completely different world. Captive cetations, that's the scientific name for whales, dolphins, and porposes. They're divorced from their native ecology, but also from their native culture, which we know is passed down from generation to generation, just like in humans. So trying to put a formerly captive whale back in the wild is an extremely difficult process. We've all seen that cinematic leap to freedom and free willy. All you have to do is let him go, right? But it's not like that at all. Captive cetations are often traumatized, uniquely in between creatures trapped between the worlds of humans and whales, stuck somewhere between instinct and compliance. Even when a captive cetation manages to escape to the open ocean, they're often not fully free, still clinging to human companionship, unsure of how to be a wild whale. When that happens, who's responsible for their well-being? I'm Farris Jaber, and I'm a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine.


I'm often drawn to stories about nature and science, especially anything to do with the living world. Like many people, I first learned about this beluga whale named Vladimir through social media.


James is videoing it.


Viral videos showed Vladimir playing fetch with a rugby ball.


That's crazy, yeah.


And retrieving a smartphone someone had dropped in the ocean. Oh my God. And borrowing a kayaker's GoPro.


Wow, that's good.


These delightful antics made him something of an international celebrity after he appeared off the Coast of Northern Norway in 2019, wearing a harness. But I quickly discovered that behind those seemingly adorable videos was a much darker reality. Vladimir was a formerly captive whale. He had most likely escaped from the Russian Navy. There's a well-documented history of a few countries, including the US and Russia, training dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals to assist their militaries. It sounds bonkers, but it's true. In fact, despite the documentary Blackfish, which revealed to so many people the cruelty of keeping whales and other cetations in captivity, we're still keeping something like 3,600 of them captive around the world. We put them in tanks, force them to serve our navies and to perform in killer whale shows and interactive dolphin pools. In the case of Valdimir, who escaped, no one seems to know exactly what to do with him now, if anything. Because he continually returns to harbors, salmon farms, and other populated areas, he is in perpetual danger. He has suffered multiple injuries from fishing lines and boat strikes. I wanted to investigate Vladimir's predicament and try to tell his whole story through this week's Sunday Read.


It took several years for me to get access to the people directly involved in Vladimir's welfare, and another year after that to report and write the story. What I uncovered was an ongoing debate between government officials, scientists, and activists that a lot about our relationship with other large, social, and intelligent animals. How we simultaneously recognize and even admire their extraordinary abilities, yet feel entitled to harness those abilities, to take these animals from the wild and train them to do our bidding without fully considering the repercussions. Humans have long been enchanted by such creatures, but in trying to possess them, to bring them closer to us, we often end up tormenting them. Here's my article, The Whale Who Went Awal, read by James Patrick Cronin. Our audio producer today is Adrian Hearst. The original music you'll hear was written and performed by Aaron Esposito.


On April 26th, 2019, a Baluga whale appeared near Toufiord, a village in northern Norway, immediately alarming fishermen in the area. Balugas 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. When a commercial fisherman named U. R. Heston 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. Heston contacted a local scientist Then word eventually reached the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, which dispatched an inspector, Jorgen Rea Wieg. After several failed attempts by Wieg and a colleague to free the Baluga while on board a dingy, Heston put on an emersion 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 2700 pounds.


Swimming beside him, Heston 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 Baluga followed a boat to Homerfest, 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 Baluga went viral, eventually earning a spot on the Ellen Degenera show. In it, several young women stand on a dock in Homerfest, speaking excitedly with their hands outstretched just above the water. The Baluga 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 kayak maker's GoPro and playing fetch with a rugby ball. By midsummer, he had become an international celebrity, drawing large groups of tourists. All the while, marine experts had been speculating about the whale's origin.


Clearly, 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 Baluga 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 Baluga Valdomir, a portmanteau of Voll, the Norwegian word for Whale, and the Russian name Vladimir. The military conscription of a Baluga whale might sound like a conceit pluck 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 sea floor. Satellite photos of Russian naval bases near Murmansk, not far from the spot where Norwegian fishermen When a gentleman first found Valdomir, reveal the type of sea pens often used to hold belugas.


Udon Riekertsen, a professor of Marine biology at the Arctic University of Norway, told me that international contacts have since confirmed that Valdomir belonged to the Navy. In the years since Vladimir 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 Baluga because he has damaged salmon farms or other underwater structures. Vladimir is now at the center of a dispute over his welfare. Although he has become more independent since his early residence in Hummerfest, 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 wild Balugas, 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 Valdomere reunited with wild Balugas or at least moved to a nature reserve. But rehabilitating a formerly captive whale is nothing like the triumphant leap to freedom and 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 Vladimir, many captive cetations 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. Valdimier 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 cetations still in confinement today. Wherever Valdomere 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 Valdomere is largely a product of circumstance. In 2019, after rekindling a relationship with her high school's 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 Valdomer, she decided to take advantage of their proximity and visit him in Hummerfest, 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 hog recalls. I was blown away. I couldn't believe he could make that connection. I thought to myself, I think I just made a friend. The more Crosby Crosby-Haug learned about Vladimir, 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 Valdomir to raise awareness of the Baluga's plight. The following summer, she officially founded the nonprofit One Whale, which is dedicated to protecting Valdomere. Several esteemed cetacean scientists, including Ingrid Wisser, Diana Ries, and Roger Payne, joined the organization as advisors. Other people in Norway were falling for the whale, too. In July 2021, Sebastian Strand, a burly, soft-hearted 24-year-old diver and graduate student in marine biology, chanced upon Vladimir swimming circles in a harbor in Vevelstad, not far from his hometown. As he walked along the docks, Vladimir 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 One Whale full-time in tandem with its network of volunteers. Years. Strand has since devoted nearly every day to watching over Vladimir 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, Vladimir has very likely formed a stronger bond with Strand than with anyone else. Valdomir 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. One Whale's efforts fill a vacuum created by the ambiguity of Vladimir'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 Vladimir, nor has anyone else. No prominent international animal rights or conservation group has volunteered to oversee his welfare. In May 2019, when Vladimir 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 Vladimir was learning to catch live fish for himself. Since then, the Directorate of Fisheries has maintained maintained a position of mild indifference, insisting that Valdomier is a wild whale and can fend for himself.


When Crosby Hogg founded One Whale, 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 Vladimir in order to save him. The controversy surrounding Vladimir is part of a much larger debate concerning the ethics of cetacean captivity. Humans have been resting 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 cetations 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 cetation breeding and captivity. Some aquariums and marine mammals parks have 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 cetation 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 porposes 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 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 site to establish a haven for orcas and Balugas. Following years of staunch opposition from local residents and fishermen, the organization finally found one Bayeside town in Nova Scotia that welcomed their proposal for a 100 acre sanctuary 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 reholming. In 2016, the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced plans to develop a sanctuary sanctuary for its six Atlantic bottle-nosed 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 lifespans. We took a hard look at the Florida Quays, says John Racconelli, 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 Entertainment, a global operator of theme parks and other attractions, has been developing an eight-acre Baluga sanctuary in Iceland since 2012. In 2019, Merlin and its various partners transported two Balugas from a Shanghai aquarium to a bay on the remote island, Heimai, the same bay that housed Keiko, the Orca that stored 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 cetation 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 cetation psychology. One of the Balugas 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 Balugas have spent most of the past four years living in an indoor pool in a landside facility. Within weeks of meeting Valdomere, Crosby Hogg began contacting every cetation sanctuary she could find, but none were willing or able to house a fugitive Baluga. Eventually, she consulted Rick O'Berry, a renowned environmental activist. In a previous life, O'Berry captured dolphins for the Miami Sequarium 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, cetations must consciously choose to breathe. The experience changed him forever. O'berry and his son Lincoln have since established what are, in some respects, the most successful cetation sanctuaries in the world.


Working with the Indonesian government and a local nonprofit, the O'Berrys 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 unlearnt their captive behaviors and develop the skills they need to survive in the wild, like hunting and deep diving. Since 1973, the Oberis 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 Hogg initially asked Rick O'Bearry to spearhead the effort to save Valdomere 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 Early thereafter, she approached the mayor of Hummerfest about creating a new reserve to rehabilitate and release Vladimir and other Balugas. After all, Vladimir had already enchanted the citizens of Hummerfest, and the town itself was surrounded by pristine Arctic habitats at. The mayor connected her with Katrina Nass, a destination developer for a local tourism company.


Regina was really good at selling this as an opportunity that could be a win-win, Nass says. Everyone wants to be the town that saved Vladimir. In August 2022, Nass, Crosby, Hogg, 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 Hummerfest. Turning it into a reserve would require stretching thousands of feet of net across its mouth and securing it all to the sea floor. Such nets need to be flexible enough 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 cetations seem to have a mental block it 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, Nass 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 the 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 Hummerfest Municipal Council has not yet officially sanction 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 cetations at most, a tiny fraction of the world's captive population. I asked Lincoln O'Bearry 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 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 Sequarium 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 Lumine Nation who consider Lolita, or Scalichaghtanat, as they call her, to be their relative. In a private ceremony in September at a sacred site, Scalichoctanat finally returned to the sea.


Baluga Doga's were once thought to have a maximum lifespan of about 50 years. The latest research suggests that they can live for close to a century. Vladimir'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 2 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 Baluga equivalent of a name, a signature contact call rather than another species pun. Instead, he was probably abducted it 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, Vladimir began an unprecedented journey south. In the past, following his departure from Homerfest, 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 Valdomer and local salmon farmers. By April, Valdomier was speeding down the Coast of Norway, rarely staying in any one place for more than a few days. On May 19th, 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 cetations tend to get stuck. Even before his unexpected voyage, Vladimir's behavior had been changing. Beyond his newfound wanderlust, he became less interested in following boats and hanging around humans humans compared with previous years. He appeared to be growing wilder all on his own. Because of this evolution, the escalating threat to Vladimir's well-being and the absence of a suitable sanctuary, One Whale revised its strategy. In partnership with the Norwegian animal rights organization, NOAH, One Whale is now petitioning Norway's government to relocate Valdomer directly to Svalbar, an archipelago about halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, with the nearest resident population ejulation of wild belugas.


One Whale hired Jeff Foster to write a detailed report explaining how to transport Valdomir by ship or plane. The Norwegian Fisheries Director, Frank Backe-Janssen, told me he is open to the idea if One Whale and its partner can secure the necessary permits and funds. This tactical shift is one of several recent developments that strained the already fraud alliance between Crosby-Haug and her scientific advisors. Moving Valdomere to Svalbar may well be his best chance of reuniting with wild Balugas, but several experts I interviewed expressed serious concerns about the plan. Baluga societies tend to be highly dynamic and accepting. Wild Balugas have even adopted lone narwals animals, but the Svalbar population is small, insular, and non-migratory. Given Vladimir's mysterious origins and how much time he has spent away from his kin, there's no guarantee that the Svalbar Balugas will welcome him, especially if he caught in the distant sea of Oukatzk, where the Russians reportedly acquire many of their military cetations. He might also introduce foreign diseases, pathogens, or unfavorable genetic mutations. Moreover, Svalbar's remote wetness and extreme weather make the expedition itself arduous and costly, not to mention stressful and disorienting for a Baluga. Even if transport is successful, Vladimir would ideally require a period of acclamation on site before release, which would mean obtaining legal authorisation to construct a temporary enclosed and maintaining it in potentially harsh conditions.


In order to determine Vladimir'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 Wisser, a whale scientist who is known for her studies of orcas and spent several weeks observing Valdomir. 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 disagreements government over Valdomer's future, a majority of One Whale's scientific advisors, including Visser and every other cetacean expert, resigned. By September, Strand had left as well. Several of One Whale's former members claimed that the organization's leadership demonstrated a pattern of miscommunication, recklessness, and a disregard for scientific expertise. They say that Crosby-Haug presented the Svalbar proposal to the Norwegian government without properly consulting them, and that she did not clearly convey the regulatory hurdles to One Whale'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 Martensen, leader of NOAH, dispute this.


They further contend that she spent too much time interacting with Valdomir 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 The motives behind Crosby-Haug's conduct became another significant point of contention. When Crosby-Haug first traveled to Hummerfest, she did not intend to mix artistry with advocacy or to be a character in her own documentary. As her devotion to Vladimir deepened, however, she decided to explore their relationship on camera in a similar manner as the hit Netflix film My Octopus Teacher. Many of One Whale's scientific consultants worried that Crosby-Haug's attempt to steer Vladimir's future and simultaneously fulfill her cinematic aspirations created a conflict of interest. Over the past year, their latent uneasiness grew into distrust. One Whale unraveled because of one person, says Stephen McColach, a longtime Marine Mammal Welfare Specialist and former One Whale advisor. 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 It became evident that Regina's priority was to make a film with a satisfying ending, Balukas Swimming Off Together in the Sunset.


But you can't film an animal that died because you didn't understand enough about him. Crosby Hogg denies prioritizing her film over Vladimir'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 One Whale. It is appropriate that he and others are no longer associated with us, she says, because there are major differences in philosophy. After leaving One Whale, Strand founded his own organization, Marine Mind, to independently monitor and protect Valdomir. Most of the experts who resigned from One Whale, including Vissar, McAlaq, and Ries, are now assisting Marine Mind, as are many of its former volunteers. Following these departures, One Whale hired the Marine biologist Anna Victoria Pina Viña as its new lead of science and research. The choice is controversial because Viña, who strongly supports the Svalbar proposal, is also involved in a study on cetation 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 mink whales and using superficial electrodes to test their hearing. Vinya 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, Valdomir 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 Valdomir's current situation, tentatively favored a detached watchfulness, refraining from social interaction and intervening only in emergencies. In contrast, Ries, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has long studied cetation, cognition, and communication, thinks that Vladimir 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 One Whale and Marine Mind are becoming somewhat disruptive. Valdomier 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 Valdomere's mischief. Now, pressured by rival organizations whose members make conflicting statements, some farmers have instead referred him to their company's public relations departments.


To be completely candid, Strand told me, It's a mess. When I began reporting this circle, Vladimir had not yet commenced his southward odyssey. By the time I connected with one whale 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 Vladimir was high. I was nowhere near prepared for just how challenging the trip would be. Because Vladimir 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 One Whale's rented catamaran, a report came in. Someone had spotted Vladimir 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, Vladimir was gliding just beneath the surface, an indistinct milky shape, noiseless and ghost-like. Close to two dozen spectators wandered the docks, trying to get a better look. Within seconds of our arrival, Vladimir swam toward us. Crosby hogs stood near the edge of our boat in a black wetsuit, waving and calling out in that lilting high-pitched voice reserved for pets and infants. Vladimir, hello, she said as the whale swam directly below us. I'm coming, baby. I'm coming. Stay with us. For the next hour, Vladimir 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, Balugas can flex their heads and alter the shape of their mouths, making them particularly expressive. By the time Valdomere 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 pretty cetation or at least get a photo.


Valdomere 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 Hogg pulled her blonde pearls into a ponytail and entered the water, swimming alongside Vladimir and explaining how to interact with him safely. It's okay to touch him, she said at one point, just not his eyes or his blow hole. 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 blow 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 Hogg enticed Vladimir to stay near the catamaran, away from the crowd. She played with him for about an hour, throwing small white buis for him to fetch and allowing him to nudge her around. Eventually, she decided it was time to leave the harbor and encourage Vladimir to follow the catamaran north.


We loosened the ropes, tying the boat to the docks and motored away. Valdomere 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 Valdomere at our side. He was easily distracted, veering away to inspect other vessels. Frustrated by repeated interruptions, Crosby-Hogg started to yell at passing boats, waving her arms and warning them to stay away. Like many celebrities, Vladimir 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. Vladimir ostensibly offers our species a chance at redemption, a formerly captive whale already moving freely through the ocean, requiring only some redirections 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. Vladimir is so far displaced from his origins, geographically, ecologically, culturally, that it's not clear whether a homecoming is still achievable.


From ochre 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 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 inflicks. 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 Vladimir, he began to slow down and trail off more frequently, possibly losing interest, or both. As we approach to town called Sher Hammon, 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 Vladimir 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 Baluga, the half-wild whale we had chased for more than a week and who half-heartedly 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.