Who Is White Sphere? The Barely Disguised Conglomerate Behind Russia’s Wild Orca Captures

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.

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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 [2013] and the one last year [2012], 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.”

Via https://www.facebook.com/russianorca

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.

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