Skip to main content

Operation Beluga: The Heroic Whale Rescue by Russians

An egalitarian techie in California looking for ways to contribute to the world and searching for folks of my tribe.

Beluga Whale


Quick Fact-check

When: December, 1984 - February, 1985

Where: In former Soviet Union(USSR), current Russian territory called Chukchi Peninsula.

What was it called: Operation Beluga or Operation Belukha which is a Russian name for polar dolphin whales.

What happened: A Soviet icebreaker ship Moskva helped rescue a shoal or school of about 2000 whales to safety.

What was special: It is one of the chapters in history where spirit of man overcame its limitations and undertook a selfless endeavor.

Who made this happen: The Soviet Government at the time and icebreaker Markov lead by Captain Anatoly M. Kovalenko.

If you want to jump to the story, scroll below. Here are a few things worth knowing before that..

Beluga Whales

Beluga Whales or Belukhas are also known so after their Russian name as they look like cross between dolphins and whales.

Beluga whales are one of the few species which are kept in marine parks across North America, Europe, and Asia. These whales are considered friendly and known to be popular among humans because of their range of facial expressions and attractive appearances. They seem to have a smile on their face. These are sentient creatures and are known to have isolated incidences that reflect their empathy. One such incident happened in China wherein a free-diving competition, cramp paralyzed free diver was brought to the surface by a captive beluga whale by holding a foot in its mouth. This saved the diver's life. You can find plenty of heartwarming videos of beluga whales playing tricks and entertaining humans. One such video which was making rounds was when someone dropped their cell phone in water. No suspense here, the beluga whale fetched it back. The same has been embedded right below. Needless to say, these creatures are smarter and kinder than what they are given credit for.

These are fascinating mammals and a lot can be said about them, but keeping it to the context, they have a malleable organ unlike any other cetacean, called a melon on their head. They use this organ to make sounds using chains of fatty acids and their sinuses. They have a very developed auditory cortex and hearing is their main sensory organ. They can hear sounds in the range of 1.2 to 120 kilohertz. In comparison, humans are capable of 0.02 to 20 kilohertz. We can go on discussing them, but it will be better if you jump to youtube for their videos !

Hey Beluga.. fetch my phone for me please

Scroll to Continue

Icebreaker Moskva and Chukchi Peninsula


Moskva was one of the five electric diesel icebreakers built in Russia named after cities. Needless to say, Moskva is the Russian name for Moscow and was the leader of the fleet and at the time of its making, it was the most powerful non-nuclear icebreaker built. Arctic seas and oceans are among the fiercest waters in the world. Many times during the year and especially in winters, the waters form a thick sheet of ice which is impenetrable by the thrust of a regular merchant ship. Icebreakers are ships built for providing the necessary aggression to break the ice shields to clear the pathway for trade routes primarily. They also have to wing winch and knots in their stern which allows them to pull the ship to be towed. They have massive hulls and very large horsepower capacities which give them the necessary strength to break thick layered ice sheets.

Moskva, in this particular case was 122 m overall and had a beam of 24.5 m. Moskva with 22,000 horsepower was only second best in the world to Lenin, a nuclear-powered propeller. The closest Western icebreakers at the time were less than half the capacity of Moskva. At the time of the incident, it was diverted from its duty in the Bering Sea.

The icebreaker Moskva retired in 1982, but here is a marvelous video of the strongest known icebreaker today “50 Years of Victory” which will give a fair idea of their raw energy.

Icebreaker "50 Years of Victory"

Chukchi Peninsula:

In the no man’s land area in between the American state of Alaska and Russia lies a thoroughly ice bred inhabitable area which contains Chukchi Peninsula.

The beluga whales in question had chased a large shoal of cod into Senyavin Strait lying between Chukchi and Arakamchechen Island. This is a narrow strait and by a matter of chance in that particular winter of 1984, winds blew and jammed the path with 12 ft thick ice sheet. Belugas can survive in water for long periods but have to come to the surface to breathe every 20 minutes or so. They can also break ice sheets of 4 to 5 inches but here the 12 ft ice sheet was far beyond their abilities.


Story behind the rescue

At the time when USA and former Soviet Union(USSR) were at the peak of the Cold War, somewhere near the end of the world as we know it, a beautiful story was unfolding. The story was initially printed in The New York Times in Feb, 1985 and it can be found here and LA Times. Recently this story resurfaced on a social media platform called Reddit and as is the nature of internet, soon after gained traction on other social media platforms. The story goes as follows..

A Chukchi hunter and his companions were running rounds when they spotted a shoal of whales. What could have been the end of a large number of beluga whales, in reality, turned out to become a story of love and humility of these hunters. Instead of taking advantage of the huge catch they found, they decided and understood that it would eliminate a majority of the beluga population. And so decided to contact authorities with the help of villagers from the nearby town of Yandrakinot. The news was soon delivered to Moscow and the place was abuzz with oceanologists, mammalogists, and reporters. While waiting for rescue from Moscow, these people with the help of locals ensured supplying frozen fishes to these whales along with opening up air holes for them. Since the winter was getting harsher, and as space grew more limited because of the freezing waters, it was a time-critical decision to be made or these whales would have perished.

Finally, Moscow called off ongoing operations of icebreaker Moskva and it started cutting through a wall of 15 miles to clear a passage for these whales to meet the open seas. Captain Kovalenko almost called off this mission to move forward twice owing to the difficulty involved in breaching this ice wall. But finally, they made it.
Once they reached the whales, the sound of the propeller and turbines prevented the whales from feeling secure enough to follow the icebreaker. The Captain tried turning the propellers off but it still didn't work. Finally, with some quick thinking by a fellow crew member, they associated how whales are receptive more with their auditory cortex. They then played music on the loudspeaker of the icebreaker. And just like that, the whales started circling and following the icebreaker. At this point and owing to lack of any source, it is better left to imagination whether they played Rolling Stones or Bach's Sonatas, but it paved the way for understanding and studying the association of these whales with music. These unsung songs were lost in stories of time but fortunately, thanks to the internet, getting their moment of appreciation today.



Much as the heroic deeds of men who saved these whales be sung, there is a lot that needs reflection. Even today whales widely suffer from poaching and their numbers have been severely depleted. Also, global warming is causing catastrophic damage to all marine life. Whales are killed for several reasons like meat, caviar, and untastefully to be mentioned, to reduce competition for fishing. A regular common man has little to do with whales on an everyday basis, but the only thing that needs to be remembered is awareness to make conscious choices. Because the end of the day we are all part of the same world and same ecosystem and our ramifications of our decisions go beyond our understanding. To harmony and singing whales!

Related Articles