A beluga whale who became an viral sensation after it was filmed apparently playing catch with a rugby ball with a group of men could have escaped from a Russian military spy programme.

Footage of the whale went viral earlier this month after it was seen chasing and returning a rugby ball to a group of South African rugby fans onboard a ship.

It has been viewed more than 19 million times on social media.

However, experts have suggested the whale could be none other than Hvaldimir, a male beluga who is thought to have been trained by the Russian navy, The Independent reported.

Experts say the whale could be the military-trained Hvaldimir
 

Hvaldimir was first spotted near Norway in April 2019.

A harness was attached to his body and a label that said "Equipment of Saint Petersburg".

He is known to approach boats to ask for food and play fetch, and is thought to have been hand-fed by humans and not able to successfully hunt for himself.

The video of the whale playing catch has gone viral
 

Ferris Jabr, a science writer, said he believed the whale on the video was likely to be Hvaldimir, as did Quad Finn, a researcher of aquatic mammals.

Finn said: "Hvaldimir was taken from the ocean and trained by humans to do tricks like fetching objects in exchange for food.

Russia has denied that Hvaldimir is connected to military training programmes
 

"That he's malnourished and still dependent on humans for food are likely reasons for what appears to be 'playful' behaviour."

Both Russia and the United States are known to have military training programmes for aquatic mammals.

However, in April a Russian military spokesperson denied that Hvaldimir was connected to any training programmes.

Experts believe Hvaldimir has been trained to do tricks for food

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In the video, the beluga whale can be seen swimming up close to the boat and allowing a person onboard to take a rugby ball out of his mouth.

When the ball is thrown back into the sea the whale swims after it, before bringing it back to the boat for it to be thrown again.