So there are no killer whales in Sochi for the Olympics, just athletes and spectators.
But the run-up to the opening of the Winter Games featured an unexpected, and persistent, media story-line: wild-caught Russian killer whales would be joining the athletes at the Black Sea resort. Based mostly on rumors, mysterious and contradictory tweets, and unconfirmed reports, the basic narrative was that a Russian company called White Sphere had, over the past two years, captured 8 orcas from the Sea Of Okhotsk and two of them were headed to Sochi to wow the Olympic crowds and generate Olympic-size profits for the Sochi Dolphinarium.
The story mobilized animal rights activists, and reporters bombarded White Sphere and the Sochi Dolphinarium with questions about their killer whale doings. After trying to ignore media queries, the story got enough traction that White Sphere, a builder of aquariums (including aquariums for marine mammal display) issued an adamant denial on its Facebook page (it’s also here), saying “White Sphere officially declares that we have nothing to do with catching the killer whales or any other marine animals.” (Aquatoriya, the company which operates the Sochi Dolphinarium also took to Facebook to issue a heated and similarly self-righteous denial; also posted here). The impassioned and indignant White Sphere statement (you have to read the whole thing in Google Translate to get the full Boris Badenov flavor), acknowledged that White Sphere builds aquariums to display marine mammals, but added (I’ve had parts of the statement translated, for better accuracy; sorry Google Translate):
“If the amateur conservationists and sensation-hungry press thought twice and performed more rigorous investigation, they would have found neither documents supporting connections between “White Sphere” and captures of animals, nor holding facilities belonging to it. It’s unlikely that the company’s name would be mentioned by organizations allocating quotas for captures of marine animals. With no less surprise they would have found that inspections would discover no orcas in the Sochi dolphinarium (including those “captured by “White Sphere”).”
The statement, in similar high dudgeon, goes on to decry the slander and the damage done to White Sphere and its employees and partners. It bemoans the fact that the world media got White Sphere and its business so wrong. It encourages journalists to do proper reporting and investigation of the facts.
So I did. And here is what I found, with help on the ground in Moscow.
The idea that White Sphere has been connected to the capture of wild killer whales in Russia starts with the work of Erich Hoyt–co-founder of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) and a senior research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who tracks the Russian orca hunt very closely. Hoyt is careful, reliable, and has good sources and connections in Russia. And in an interview last November, he detailed the web of companies involved in the capture of the 8 killer whales taken from Russian waters (including a female called “Narnia”) over the past two years:
“For these 7 orcas this year  and the one last year , it’s one company doing the orca captures and they have also done beluga captures for some years. They have been identified publicly as “White Sphere”. This is a group of companies, in fact, with White Sphere building dolphinariums in Russia, White Whale capturing animals in the wild, and Aquatoriya operating dolphinariums. The [Sochi Dolphinarium] is a subsidiary of Aquatoriya, identified as the captor and owner of Narnia.”
So you have three Russian companies: White Sphere, White Whale, and Aquatoriya (Aquatoriya’s homepage lists the Sochi Dolphinarium among its facilities, and is named by the Sochi Dolphinarium as one of its partners, which, to complete the circle, also lists White Sphere on its homepage under a section titled “Our Friends). One company builds aquariums, one captures animals for aquariums, and one owns and manages aquariums. That’s a pretty complementary group, and Russian killer whale advocates have taken to calling all of them “White Sphere,” which perhaps helps explain how the world’s attention got focused on White Sphere, the aquarium construction company. But is it true that they have nothing to do with one another, that White Sphere (the construction company) is not connected to the capture and display side of the business? Um, not really.
Let’s start with a web site, ws-ww.ru. Copy that URL into your browser and your browser will identify it (in Russian) as “White Sphere-White Whale” (which makes sense if you consider what “ws-ww” might stand for). While the website does not actually display properly at the moment (a Russian contact confirms that it used to, before the Sochi killer whale story blew up), you can find what was on the page by asking your browser to display the HTML code. And when you do, you see “Белая Сфера – Белый Кит,” or “White Sphere-White Whale” confirmed as the title for the website. So White Sphere (the construction company) and White Whale (the capture company) at least share a website.
Moreover, the White Sphere-White Whale homepage, which is pretty spare in terms of content, does have a section titled: ГРУППА КОМПАНИЙ, or “Group Companies.” It lists, with logos, White Sphere, White Whale, and Aquatoriya, along with links to their websites, linking the companies together as you would a consortium. The homepage also includes a Moscow telephone number (+7 (495) 787 0757) and contact e-mail (email@example.com) for the group. That same contact e-mail address is provided on each of the individual White Sphere, White Whale, and Aquatoriya websites (and White Sphere and Aquatoriya use that same Moscow phone number, as well). So if you want to contact any of the individual companies via email, you are in fact contacting the group which includes all of them.
There are other sub rosa connections between the three companies, as well. For example, the trademarks registered with the Russian Federal Service For Intellectual Property for White Sphere (No. 315325; enter number here) and Aquatoriya (No. 324107, enter number here) were registered by the same company: White Sphere Ltd., of Belize. The Russian address given for White Sphere Ltd in the trademark registration form (LLC “White Sphere,” 4-ya ul. Vosmogo Marta, d. 4, korp. 2, Moscow, 125167) is–surprise–also used by White Whale as its legal address.
This shell game (sort of) disguises but (clearly) confirms a variety of corporate connections and overlaps between the three companies, making White Sphere appear to be part of a conglomerate that can build an aquarium, catch the animals for it, and operate the aquarium. White Sphere’s website further conveys the impression that White Sphere is not just a construction company, but a full-service marine mammal display operation. This page (partially translated), for example, advertises a complete and comprehensive range of services to anyone who is interested in getting into the captive display business:
We’re successfully operating dolphinariums and Centers of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy in Sochi (dolphinarium “Aquatoriya” [i.e. the Sochi Dolphinarium]), Yalta (theatre of sea animals “Aquatoriya”), Novosibirsk (theatre of sea animals “Aquatoriya”), Hurghada, Egypt (Dolphin World).
Having many years of experience in this field, we’re ready to offer you development and implementation of all business processes in accordance with very high standards.
Our specialists will prepare for you the needed amount of various marine mammals. Our experienced trainers will work with the animals. An optimal show program will be designed for you dolphinarium.
We will provide constant veterinary care to the animals. We will select and train all employees. We will work out effective marketing and advertising solutions. We will organize functioning of additional services on the dolphinarium territory. We will implement keeping of financial records and financial control.
We’re ready to create a profitable business for you.
That is not the description of a humble construction company.
There’s more. In its statement of denial, White Sphere made a point of saying “It’s unlikely that the company’s name would be mentioned by organizations allocating quotas for captures of marine animals.” That is technically true. But there is an LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy that is based in Anapa, about 150 miles from Sochi, that is deep into wild captures, has generous permits, and appears intimately connected to the Sochi Dolphinarium, operated by White Sphere’s partner, Aquatoriya.
According to Russian sources, J.V. Frolova, LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy’s Director and sole shareholder, is also the sole shareholder of a second LLC, also called LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy (it’s tempting to think there is an effort to obscure and confuse here), that happens to share the same legal address as Aquatoriya’s Sochi Dolphinarium. So while the web is complex, there is a series of links that is hidden just below the surface that connect White Sphere to Aquartoriya and the Sochi Dolphinarium, to the LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy that is out in the field snaring wild animals, especially killer whales and belugas.
Those links can be seen in the permitting and capture side of the game, too. For example, in 2012, the Russian Fisheries Agency, in order 394, listed the companies that were granted applications for permits, and includes the Anapa LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy (another clue that this Anapa LLC is directly connected to Aquatoriya’s Sochi Dolphinarium is that the contact e-mail listed for the Anapa LLC in the Fisheries Agency order–firstname.lastname@example.org–is the same contact e-mail used by Aquatoriya’s Sochi Dolphinarium). Order 395 details the quotas LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy was granted in 2012: 3 orcas, 20 walruses, 36 belugas and 10 pilot whales. In a subsequent order, No. 756, the Fisheries Agency increased quotas for a number of companies. In that order, LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy was granted permission to take an additional 73 belugas (which is a lot of belugas, and suggests that LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy is supplying animals for multiple aquariums, including aquariums abroad.
As to whether LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy caught any killer whales, the Russian Fisheries Agency confirmed that in 2012 LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy caught a single orca (who was later dubbed “Narnia”). Controversy over the capture, and whether any other orcas were captured or killed, was discussed in online forums at www.RussianOrca.com. In response, LLC Sochinskiy Delfinary’s Director General, Frolova, issued a cease and desist letter that acknowledged a killer whale capture but disputed any killer whales were killed:
“We inform you that the statement about capture of two orcas, one of which died, isn’t true. No animals died during the capture and adaptation….
The capture of orcas was conducted lawfully by the permit issued by an empowered body in the field of fisheries and conservation of water biological resources *for educational and cultural purposes*…
All captured animals are undergoing primary adaptation in the care of veterinarians and qualified trainers, who take science-backed measures to relieve the animals of stress and make them start to eat.”
The apparent reference to “orcas” rather than “an orca” seem to suggest more than one orca was taken. However, LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy followed up with a second note, insisting:
“In 2012 LLC “Sochinskiy delfinariy” captured just ONE orca under the permits granted. We have all necessary documents of the proper form about that. The animal is undergoing the planned adaptation at one of the specially equipped temporary holding facilities. We don’t know where the rumors about capture of the second orca come from.”
The note concluded:
“Yours sincerely, Administration of LLC “Sochinskiy delfinariy” Phone (862) 246-33-03, 246-33-02.”
Those phone numbers are the same phone numbers listed on the homepage of Aquatoriya’s Sochi Dolphinarium. The pattern is consistent. Almost everywhere you look with regard to any of these companies, there is some hint of a connection to one another.
So we have the LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy, affiliated by its founder, e-mail address, and phone numbers with Aquatoriya’s Sochi Dolphinarium, taking the lead in the capture of Narnia (which, denial aside, does in fact associate White Sphere, via its corporate connections with Aquatoriya and the Sochi Dolphinarium, in a wild killer whale capture). It is not clear who did the actual hunt and capture, but in a summary of work achieved in 2012, White Whale recounts the capture and transport of 10 wild walruses to Aquatoriya’s Sochi Dolphinarium, so White Whale is at least in the mix when it comes to supplying the Sochi Dolphinarium with other wild-caught animals.
In 2013, no official quotas were publicly issued. However, according to Erich Hoyt the White Sphere partnership was responsible for catching seven additional killer whales. What might happen in 2014 is equally murky. Russian sources say that for 2014 Russia has set a Total Allowable Catch (or TAC, which is the maximum number scientists estimate can be taken without damaging the future of the population) for belugas of 800. But the scientific advisory board that helps Russian agencies set the TAC for killer whales recommended a quota of zero
declined to make a recommendation for 2014. “The zero quota was not accepted by Federal fisheries in Moscow,” says Hoyt. “Federal Fisheries instead indicated that they would find new killer whale experts to make a new recommendation. We are still awaiting that part of the quota.” (hey, I guess if you–or others, if I am cynical–don’t like what the experts say, you can always go shopping for new experts). Whether a TAC will eventually be set for Russian killer whales, and what actual permit numbers might be set for beluga whales and killer whale captures for 2014, is still unknown. What is probable, however, is that the group of companies affiliated with White Sphere is deeply involved in any discussions.
Anyone who understood the connections between LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy and Aquatoriya might naturally have assumed that Narnia, the killer whale captured in 2012, would end up at Aquatoriya’s Sochi Dolphinarium (which was functionally on the permit, given its doppelganger relationship with LLC Sochinskiy Delfinariy). Throw in the fact that in late last November the press secretary of the Vnukovo airport outside Moscow tweeted about killer whales being shipped via Vnukovo to Sochi, and that was enough to kickstart the global rumor mill, and send the media chasing after the idea of killer whales in Sochi (even though the press secretary quickly reversed herself with another tweet saying the shipment had been postponed).
The irony of this story is that it appears Narnia was probably never destined for the Sochi Dolphinarium, and instead was destined (at least since last June) for a new Moscow dolphinarium. In fact, Hoyt says, she has already been shipped to Moscow, along with another killer whale (and that two of the others caught in 2013 have been sent to China).
While that makes the Sochi Dolphinarium’s protestations that it was never intending to display killer whales somewhat credible, it does not change the fact that White Sphere’s wounded claim to being a misunderstood construction company does not survive close scrutiny. If you scratch below the surface, and consider the apparent links between White Sphere, White Whale, and Aquatoriya (especially the Sochi Dolphinarium), the companies appear more plausibly as a de facto consortium than three independent companies that happen to be working in different areas of the captive industry. And it is a consortium that appears intimately involved in the capture, display and sale of wild Russian belugas and killer whales, even if none of them ended up at the Sochi Olympics.