The Russia Report

Orcas in “Whale Jail.” Courtesy RAS.

In late 2009, Russian journalist Svetlana Krasnayazvezda began investigating allegations of corruption between one of Russia’s largest steel manufacturers, government officials, and a Russian-associated organized crime group based in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Over the next decade, her investigation would expand to include other areas of private-public cooperation that could be considered unethical or illegal, including the illicit trade in wildlife. In 2016, a colleague of Krasnayazvezda, based near Montreal, brought my writing to her attention. At the time, I had been blogging about the plans to display orcas at the Sochi Dolphinarium and the facility’s link to the Ukranian company NEMO and the Russian Navy.

Using this Montreal-based journalist as an intermediary, Krasnayazvezda and I began communicating on a weekly basis. In September, fearing arrest as a consequence of her continued investigations into Russian corruption, Krasnayazvezda transmitted over 50,000 documents to her Montreal-based colleague. Approximately 4,000 of these pertained to the capture and sale of killer whales, belugas, and pinnipeds.

The documents were forwarded to me once I agreed to three stipulations:

  • For the time being, I have been asked to act as the conduit on matters regarding the marine mammal trade. I was asked to do this due to the large number of my readers who, regardless of whether or not they support public exhibition, care about animal welfare.
  • The identities of all of the journalists globally (there are a number of us) reviewing the 50,000 documents, our translators, and Svetlana Krasnayazvezda, which is a pseudonym, are to remain anonymous, except when reporting directly to the public. So, for example, when my colleagues write about the industries they are experts in, my name will not appear, even if I contributed to their reports.
  • As this is an ongoing investigation and documents may give clues to their origins or to the identities of individuals mentioned or communicating in them, they cannot be shared or publicly dispersed until the entire investigation is concluded.

After consulting with my colleagues, I have decided to begin the year by sharing information garnered from correspondence surrounding the release of orcas and belugas from the so called Russian “Whale Jail.”

At the center of everything is Kirill Mikhailov, co-founder of White Sphere, a company that develops and operates dolphinariums, public pools, and waterparks throughout Europe and the Middle East and that has recently embarked on residential and commercial real estate development as well.

Belugas at Utrish Marine Station. Courtesy Georgia Aquarium.

Through allegedly questionable means, Mikhailov acquired control of both the Sochi Dolphinarium and the Utrish Dolpinarium group. The latter is an offshoot of the Utrish Marine Station (UMS), a facility on the Black Sea operated by the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). UMS is where the eighteen belugas ordered by the Georgia Aquarium were being held and there are indications that Mikhailov may have been involved in the capture and the transaction of these whales. In 2016, six walrus pups illegally captured by his associates (the captures included the alleged illegal killing of nursing mothers in order to acquire the pups) were transferred to UMS when a sister RAS facility at the Primorsky Aquarium in Vladivostok refused them.

Walruses at Utrish Marine Station. Courtesy RAS.

With the Olympics headed to Sochi, Mikhailov decided to showcase two orcas at his Sochi Dolphinarium. International public outcry with heavy accompanying media coverage forced him change his plans at the last minute. Two large, rusty open topped oil tanks were place on the grounds of the All-Russian Exhibition Center, filled with water, and covered with an inflatable dome while construction commenced on the giant aquarium next door. His company, White Sphere designed the marine mammal habitats and therapy pools in this new building, dubbed the Moskvarium, and Mikhailov became a minority shareholder. When the aquarium opened the following year, three orcas captured by one of his companies would be on display.

Courtesy Moskvarium

At the same time that the Moskvarium was opening, the Primorsky Aquarium, a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was experiencing continued delays, primarily due to embezzlement of construction and operating funds by its management. The Moskvarium’s management would do everything they could to take any positive attention away from Primorsky, including prohibiting the Vladivostok aquarium from acquiring an orca, an species whose trade in Russia was controlled exclusively by White Sphere and its associate companies.

Those companies, operating under the names Sochi Dolphinarium, White Whale, DV Oceanarium, and Aquatoria, would make a lot of money for their owners. Although the four companies have different operating names, places of business, and registrations, they all report to one person – Mikhailov.

Eventually, the four firms would take over the former TINRO Center, a fisheries research institute, and use it to house close to 100 orcas and belugas.

Russian courts found the four guilty for having captured the orcas and belugas held in the “Whale Jail” illegally. Throughout the internet, one can find reports of the captors being fined and having to turn over the animals for repatriation to the wild. However, this was not the case.

Mikhailov struck a deal with the Russian Federal Research of Fisheries and Oceanography, or VNIRO, to purchase the orcas and belugas initially released for a study on “behavior and migration.” The remaining belugas were not included in the study and were not released until the last minute, and en masse. Purchased by the government at the highest possible government rate, when added up, the payment from VNIRO of 10 million rubles per orca (about US$156.5 thousand) and 3.045 million rubles per beluga (about US$47.7 thousand), covered the 122 million ruble fine that had been imposed upon the four firms. Essentially, the government refunded the fines back to the captors.

Officially, those purchase fees also included transport and release costs, as the four firms were also contracted by the government to provide these services. However, there appears to be additional billing above costs incurred, submitted in a separate record, to pay the captors to release their prey.

Further along in the correspondence, we found something disturbing. We don’t know if this happened, or if it was planned to happen, but it was certainly discussed. As you read on, keep an open mind.

Orca capture. Courtesy RAS.

In correspondence between two trainers, we see plans develop to recapture the orcas.

“We’ll have the boats and nets just to the North,” says one. “Trainers will be onboard and will coax the whales over with fish.”

“Where will we take them?” asks the other. “We can’t bring them back here.”

“They have already started work on Site B,” responds the first.

The second trainer finds humor in this comment. “LOL. Like Jurassic Park. Very good.”

There is another email from a trainer to a VNIRO official asking, “If we provide you good photos of the whales, can you ‘officially’ locate some in the wild that look like ours?”

The response: “Yes.”

As I mentioned before, we have yet to uncover evidence that this progressed beyond the discussion stage.

I want to conclude with a question. At a November 21, 2019 press conference covering the release of all the whales, Kirill Kolonchin, the Director of VNIRO, shared that the decission to release the whales was “more political than scientific or practical.” He followed this by sharing that orcas are not in the Russian Red Book because their populations are too high to be considered endangered. He then compared wild orcas to wolves, indicating that should they endanger the populations of Baikal seals or cause economic harm to fishermen, it would be acceptable to shoot them.

So…..what’s the difference between a shot whale and a captured whale?

One floats onto a beach dead.

The other brings in millions of dollars.

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