OSINT: Mysterious Beluga Whale Base In Sochi, Black Sea
The Russian Navy's use of trained dolphins, seals and (now infamously) beluga whales, is well established. Two marine mammal programs exist, one based in the Arctic, the other in the Black Sea. The sites associated with these, even forward deployments to naval bases (Sevastopol, Novorossiysk and Tartus), are known. But there is a loose end.
A beluga whale site in Sochi, on the Black Sea, retains an air of mystery.
The site is in the harbor entrance, sheltered behind a detached breakwater. It appears to be navy related, but it is (currently) not fully confirmed.
Shortly before the Winter Olympics in 2014, pens containing beluga whales appeared in Sochi Harbor. It was reported at the time that their purpose was to defend the harbor. This was before widespread awareness of the Russian Navy's marine mammal programs. The Olympics were an opportunity for Russia to acquire a lot of Western diving equipment, for 'anti-terrorist' needs at the games. It is plausible that the belugas were indeed there in an anti-sabotage role.
Circumstantially, these will have been brought down from the Russian Navy marine mammal program based near Murmansk. The Sevastopol based unit was still under Ukrainian control, albeit only for a few days more, as Russian troops occupied Crimea.
The Russian Navy is the main, and most straightforward, explanation. However it should be noted that there are aquariums in the area which train belugas and dolphins. It could be part of a breeding or training program, or simply overspill. Or it could have a civilian scientific purpose.
In 2017-19 several belugas were seen by locals hanging around the inner harbor. These appear to have been living free, although clearly released or escaped from somewhere. Belugas are not native to the warm waters of the Black Sea. The obvious culprits: the aquariums in the area which have belugas, or a navy program. In 2020 local media reported (in Russian) that the strays would be taken back to the arctic region. The same article reports that scientists have been studying them in the 'special pens'.
Belugas: Navy Assets
The beluga pens have been there ever since 2014, and are there currently. Although the Russian Navy has reestablished its dolphin program in the Black Sea (seized from Ukraine in 2014), there seems to have been no move to switch animals. Dolphins are generally more suited to the warmer waters. And they are smaller, which must make them easier to handle on-of boats etc.
But like so much surrounding the Russian Navy's marine mammal programs, there is a lot we do not know. Although Sochi is associated with Putin and Russia's government/oligarchs, the harbor itself does not contain obvious targets. Why defend this site but not the private VIP harbors along the lake, one of which is outside 'Putin's palace'?
So, it is unclear whether these are part of a navy program. On the one hand the timing of their arrival and location supports it. On the other hand, reports suggest that the pens are science related.
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