Operation Beluga

I’ve got good news and bad news. Bad news first: if you are looking for a post on the delicious beluga caviar, this is not it.

The good news, on the other hand are that this is another incredible, but true! story (about Soviet icebreakers and beluga whales) and that if you are still thinking about caviar in this post you can read where to get the best deal for your caviar fix in Russia!

In October 1961, after assisting more than a hundred cargo ships in the Russian Arctic during the autumn navigating season, the Soviet icebreaker Moskva completed an eastbound transit of the Northern Sea Route from Murmansk to Vladivostok in only 10 days. This was both a record time as well as the latest time a successful transit had been completed before the winter, and demonstrated how the shipping season could be extended with modern icebreakers (Moskva had only been built two years before). Afterwards, the Moskva was stationed in Vladivostok and used to escort in the eastern part of the Northern Sea Route.

In late December 1984, a Chukchi hunter spotted a herd of up to 3,000 beluga whales struggling for breathing room in small pools of open water in the ice-covered waters off the Chukchi Peninsula.  His first reaction was most likely joy: the white whales are a prime local food source. But when hunters and fishermen converged on the site they realized the scope of the problem.

The white whales had evidently chased a large shoal of cod into the Senyavin Strait, which separates Arakamchechen Island from the Chukchi Peninsula in the north-easternmost corner of Russia (then the Soviet Union), only about 130 miles from the Alaska mainland. An easterly wind kicked up and jammed the narrow strait with drift ice up to 12 feet (4 m) thick, leaving only small pools of open water for the white whales to surface for breathing.

Though well adapted to the northern seas and capable of breaking through thin ice to reach air, the white whales found themselves trapped in ice too thick to breach and too vast to negotiate on a single breath.

Helicopters and experts were dispatched to survey the scene, and inhabitants of the nearby settlement of Yanrakynnot brought frozen fish to feed the teeming belugas. Finally the decision was taken to summon the Moskva.

Once the ship finally got through the ice and to the herd, a new problem emerged: how to persuade the weakened whales to follow the large, thunderingship before the ice could close up behind her.

Nobody could tell the captain how, in effect, to perform the most responsible stage of the operation – in what language, so to speak, to talk to the polar dolphins“, wrote the Government newspaper Izvestia. “This operation was truly experimental“.


At first the white whales simply rested in the larger pools the Moskva made, feeding and gaining strength. Then they got active, playing, whistling, squealing, snorting – “in a word, doing everything except one thing – entering the canal made by the icebreaker“.

‘Four more days were needed to teach the belugas not to fear the ship, the noise of its propellers. The icebreaker would go to and from the herd. Then someone recalled that dolphins react acutely to music. And so music began to pour off the top deck. Popular, martial, classical. Classical music proved most to the taste of the belugas. The herd began to slowly follow the ship.

Captain Kovalenko reported by radio to his headquarters: «Our tactic is this: We back up, then advance again into the ice, make a passage, and wait. We repeat this several times. The belugas start to ‘understand’ our intentions, and follow the icebreaker. Thus we move kilometer by kilometer».

With time the whales became fully accustomed to the ship. “They began coming up to the ship themselves“, Izvestia reported. “They hemmed it about from all sides. They were happy as children, jumping, spreading out all over the ice field“.

Finally, in late February, the ship led the belugas to the open sea.

In the end, it was estimated that about 2,000 whales escaped while slightly more than 500 were taken by the local hunters. Using the ice breaker Moskva for the rescue operation, dubbed “Operation Beluga”, cost the Soviet government about $80,000 of the time (about 200,000 UDS in 2019 money).

Russian icebreakers Admiral Makarov (left) and Moskva in 1992, shortly before the latter was sold for scrap. Source.

The original Moskva was unfortunately and unceremoniously sold for scrap in 1992. That’s why I don’t have a picture of her. But if you look at the one above, which I found on Wikipedia, the resemblance with the Lenin is uncanny, as both ships were built just two years apart.

In this post you can read the story of the icebreaker Lenin, the first nuclear propulsion ship in history.

Would you like to organise a trip to Murmansk and a visit to the Lenin? Or a trip to some other off-the-beaten-track place in Russia and discover just how much the largest country on Earth has to offer? Then do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable tailor-made experience for you!

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Thank you!


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