Dolphins and the Military

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U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program
During the Cold War era the United States trained dolphins and other sea creatures to perform a series of extraordinary naval tasks under the Marine Mammal Program. The Soviet Union responded by attempting to train its own aquatic sentries and spies. The military liked dolphins because their echolocation capabilities enabled them to detect underwater objects such as mines. According to Smithsonian magazine Military efforts to exploit the intelligence of marine mammals were often ingenious and sometimes successful. Other times they represented a quixotic exercise in interspecies collaboration. [Source: Smithsonian magazine]

A number of countries are known to run military programs with dolphins, including the U.S., Russia (Soviet Union), Sweden, Ukraine, and possibly Iran, Israel and North Korea: 1) to study how they echolocate in the hopes of designing better submarines and sonar detectors; and 2) to train them to listen for approaching submarines, reveal the location of buried explosive devices underwater, and uncover the identity of suspicious objects. [Source: Zoe Cormier, BBC Earth; The Guardian]

Dolphin sonar is considered better than anything used in the military. Trained dolphin can locate mines from a distance of several hundred meters with 100 percent accuracy. On several occasions the U.S. Navy has said it would develop technology to make the use of dolphins obsolete but thus far it has been unable to achieve this goal. .

The nefarious capabilities of dolphins was highlighted in the 1973 sci-fi thrilled “Day of The Dolphin” with George C. Scott. In the film evil corporate executives kidnap two talking dolphins and enlist them in a plan to assassinate the U.S. president by plowing up his yacht.

Websites and Resources: Britain-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society ; Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase; Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Dolphins and the U.S. Military

The U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program as it’s called today was established in the 1950s when Navy researchers attempted to improve torpedo design by studying dolphins. In the 1960s, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego switched from studying dolphin’s swimming and acoustic ability to investigating their potential as vehicles of war. The Navy also studied sea lions, beluga whales and other marine animals. [Source: Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, April 2007; Dwight Holing, Discover, October 1988]

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U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program
One of the early missions of he Marine Mammal Program was to defend ports and the important ships berthed there, especially nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, both of which are key to U.S. deterrence and power-projection. Stavros Atlamazoglou wrote in Business Insider: The program tested out a number of animals but found dolphins and sea lions to be the best suited for the mission. Their biological sonars enable them to detect things that electronic sonar might miss, such as enemy mines or lost equipment, and sea lions have sensitive hearing and acute eyesight that allows them to monitor the murkiest water for threats like enemy divers. [Source: Stavros Atlamazoglou, Business Insider, February 2, 2023]

The Marine Mammal Program’s collection of animals would peak in the 1980s, with more than 100 dolphins plus a bevy of sea lions. The program today continues on a somewhat more modest scale, with dozens of dolphins and sea lions still ready for deployment. In the late 1990s the U.S. government gave one group several million dollars to develop an electronic mine-detecting robot dolphin. The project proved to be too difficult and was dropped

The U.S. government continues to spend millions of dollars annually to care for and train bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. According to the program’s website, these animals “have excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing that allow them to detect and track undersea targets, even in dark or murky waters”. [Source: Maddie Bender, Daily Beast, August 18, 2022]

U.S. Navy Military Uses of Dolphins

The first military use of a dolphin came in 1965, when the Navy sent a bottlenose named Tuffy to deliver messages, tools and even soda to a long-term ocean research module 200-plus feet underwater off the California coast. In the Vietnam war era dolphins were not only trained to hunt for mines, but also to stick explosives onto enemy ships and even to stick needles full of carbon dioxide into enemy divers.

A half dozen dolphins were sent to Vietnam to protect Cam Rahn Bay and locate potential saboteurs during the Vietnam War. According to Smithsonian magazine: America’s MK6 project took advantage of dolphins’ powerful biological sonar, training them to serve as floating guards around ships. Dolphins performed this task impressively during the Vietnam War. Rumors abound that U.S. dolphins were schooled in anti-personnel attacks, even killing two Soviet divers who were trying to put a mine on a U.S. cargo ship in Vietnam. The Navy has repeatedly denied such claims. [Source: Smithsonian magazine]

Five dolphins with a 25-man support team were sent the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In 1996, dolphins guarded the bay next to the San Diego Convention Center during the Republican convention. Soviet intelligence once claimed the CIA planed to use dolphins to assassinate Fidel Castro.

Dolphins outfit with cameras on their flippers were mobilized as minesweepers for the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2005. The dolphins along with some sea lions were sent to the Persian Gulf in advance of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At that time dolphin lovers sent a protest petition to the U.S. Department of Defense stating: “No member of a civilized society should condone the abuse and exploitation of dolphins for military purposes.”

Training of U.S. Navy Dolphins

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U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program
U.S. Navy dolphins were trained to respond to acoustic signals, such as the noise made by a toy cricket clicker, and they were give rewards of fish as positive reinforcement. Described as "marine operational systems," they performed best at retrieval tasks and identifying mines but were also taught to pull regulators from the mouths of divers and deploy bombs. The Navy denies that dolphins have been trained to carry explosives to blow up enemy vessels or kill anyone. They also say there is no truth to the claim that dolphins were trained to kill enemy frogmen with hollow lances worn over their beaks during the Vietnam War.

According to Business Insider: To track the dolphin underwater, the handler will attach a "pinger" device on the pectoral fin of the dolphin that will show the mammal's position. If the dolphin detects something, it will either attack it or surface to alert the handlers, who roam the surrounding waters in small boats. [Source: Stavros Atlamazoglou, Business Insider, February 2, 2023]

The Navy's marine mammals have another role, and it's not one directed against enemy forces. During training, "those mammals were very real and very scary," the former frogman said. Candidates in the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course — a notoriously tough, and sometimes fatal, assessment that has attracted increased scrutiny for its brutality — have to complete several open-water swims in the Pacific Ocean.

During the swims, which can be as long as 5 miles, the candidates and their swim buddies are alone in the ocean. BUD/S course instructors "have a sadistic tendency to scare the shit out of students before open-water swims," the former Navy SEAL officer said. "They will make us watch 'Shark Week' or tell us horror stories about killer dolphins and humongous sea lions that escaped from the Navy's pens and are swimming around looking for their next prey."

Dolphins Versus U.S. Navy Seals

In order to find ways to defeat Soviet dolphins and sea lions and to ensure its own mammals were effective, the Navy turned to an elite human force, US Navy SEALs. : Stavros Atlamazoglou wrote in Business Insider As the US military's prime maritime special-operations forces, Navy SEALs spend a lot of time in the water. The elite frogmen of US Naval Special Warfare Command are proficient in maritime insertion and an array of special-operations missions. [Source:Stavros Atlamazoglou, Business Insider, February 2, 2023]

The Navy will often task SEALs to "attack" its most prized warships while they are in port to determine "if their force protection plan is functioning," and mammals and their handlers will play defense and try to "kill" or capture the "enemy" combat swimmers, a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider. "This is good training for us because we might be called one day to place a limpet mine on an actual enemy ship," the former SEAL officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they still work with the US government.

It is also good training for the ships and sailors of "Big Navy, because they are tasked with defending some of our military most valuable assets," said the former frogman, calling it "a win-win situation." "It's scary when you're in the dark, cold water and you know that there is a huge dolphin somewhere out there. It's definitely a gut-check," the former frogman added.

Controversies Regarding U.S. Military Dolphins

A 1990 presidential panel declared that dolphins were definitely non-combatants. The statements were made after rumors were spread, as they had in the past, that dolphins were being trained to use explosives, attack enemy ships and drag underwater terrorists to their deaths. When Hurricane Katrina hit the southeast United States, a British newspaper reported that Navy killer dolphins had gotten loose in the Gulf of Mexico. In response to this and other similar assertions, the U.S. Navy website states: “The Navy does not now train, nor has it ever trained its marine mammals to harm or injure humans in any fashion or to carry weapons to destroy ships.”

The controversy over the military applications of dolphins was back in the news in 2007 when it was announced that dolphins and sea lions were being considered for use as guards at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base in Washington, home to the U.S.’s largest nuclear arsenal. The plan called for 30 dolphin and sea lions working in shifts — primarily at night when humans, even with detection equipment, tend be less effective — to guard the base, where Trident submarines are based. Conservationists opposed the plan, claiming among other things that the cold water around the base harmed the dolphins, an assertion the Navy refuted.

The dolphins working outside Kitsap-Bangor have a special device outfit on their snouts. When they encounter a swimmer they releases a flashing beacon on the surface which alerts security teams to the location of the swimmer. Dolphins and sea lions are are also on duty in waters off the submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia. Among them is Toad, who is in her late 40s and served in Vietnam. Some aspects of the Navy dolphin and sea lion program remain secret such as the hearing and vison capabilities of the animals and how many soldiers accompany them to provide “force protection.”

How Effective Are Dolphins in Real War

The former SEAL told Business Insider that it is hard to determine the effectiveness of dolphins and sea lions as military assets in actual wartime conditions. Technologies continue to evolve and emerge, and a way to "circumvent or neutralize" the mammals could arrive before any conflict with China or Russia breaks out. [Source: Stavros Atlamazoglou, Business Insider, February 2, 2023]

Should a war with China or Russia break out, US special operators would be called upon to tackle conventional threats in support of other US forces, and they might encounter militarized mammals. Russia's and China's navies would both pose a threat to the US military, but the Chinese Navy — the largest in the world — would be the more serious challenge because the conflict would mainly take place in vast ocean and coastal areas of the Indo-Pacific region.

US special-operations forces would be tasked with trying to disrupt, delay, or destroy Russian and Chinese ships in their ports. Navy SEALs, as the US's primary naval special-operations unit, would take the lead in any underwater special-operations mission against Chinese warships. If the Chinese military employs dolphins or other mammals in force-protection roles, then US Navy SEALs might finally put their skills to the test against the real thing.

Current Status of Trained Dolphins and the U.S. Military

The American military still has a dolphin unit. According to The Guardian currently spends about $28 million a year on more than 100 dolphins, sea lions and other animals at the Point Loma submarine base near San Diego.

As of 2007, there were 74 dolphins at the U.S. Navy facility at Point Loma, California, which also has 25 California sea lions (a Navy beluga whale is kept nearby at SeaWorld). With the end of the Cold War, the number of dolphins in the program was reduced from 95 to 75 and the "excess" dolphins were sold to theme parks in Florida and the Bahamas.

“They are still part of naval research because you just can’t replace them – the navy has wanted to replace the dolphins for as long as I know of, but they can’t because we don’t have any sonar system that can beat theirs. We cannot for example reliably detect mines that have been buried in the sand, but dolphins not only find them, they also don’t give us false alarms, such as spotting something that just turns out to be a rock,” Professor Whitlow Au, Researcher Emeritus in the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, told the BBC. [Source: Zoe Cormier, BBC Earth]

Dolphins and the Soviet Military

The Kazachya naval base in Sevastopol, Ukraine in the Crimea had facilities for a special unit of 70 "killer dolphins" that had been trained to "seek, find and kill" frogmen, and sniff out mines and torpedoes and attach a special glue to metal ships that enabled navy personnel to blow the ships up. [Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2000]

The dolphins reportedly were taught to kill divers by a attaching a cigarette-box-size device that injected a lethal dose of carbon dioxide and were dropped from helicopters and planes with parachutes. They were used to locate sunken vessels, submarines and crashed planes. Some reportedly were killed in kamikaze missions with explosive strapped to their backs.

According to Smithsonian magazine” In the 1970s, the Soviets strapped bombs to dolphins and sent them under enemy ships as unwitting suicide bombers; by one estimate, 2,000 dolphins died in such operations. The Soviets also invented a parachute harness for dolphins, so they could drop the creatures into the sea from planes as high as 1.8 miles in the air. With titanium clamps they carried on their noses, Soviet dolphins could lock a small sphere, roughly the size of a golf ball, onto an enemy (human) swimmer, thus injecting a lethal dose of carbon dioxide. [Source: Smithsonian magazine]

Soviet Military Dolphins After the Collapse of the Soviet Military

The Soviet trained marine mammal program units in Sevastopol were transferred to the Ukrainian armed forces following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia regained the units following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and expanded operations after that. Sevastopol is a major port and headquarters of Russia's Black Sea fleet in Crimea.

After the collapse of Communism, the Soviet military dolphin detachment suddenly found itself without funding and a mission. Attempts to persuade oil companies to take the dolphins were unsuccessful. As of the early 2000s, scientists were promoting dolphin therapy, charging $10 per session and promising to cure a wide range of ailments with their "natural ultrasound" and ability to improve people's auras. In most sessions people swim around with the dolphins in an outdoor pen with oil tanks and rusted naval ships nearby. Kazachya also made money with a dolphins show and charging money for pictures painted by dolphins (apparently painting for a dolphin is not all that different than disarming a mine). Some of the dolphins were contracted out to dolphin shows in Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and other parts of the parts of the Ukraine. The dolphins were also been trained to work on offshore oil rigs, locate accident victims at sea and do underwater exploration for geological surveys.

The Guardian reported: Ukraine had also trained dolphins at an aquarium near Sevastopol, in a program born out of a Soviet-era scheme that fell into neglect in the 1990s. The Sevastopol program was resurrected in 2012 by the Ukrainian navy, but the mammals fell into Russian hands after the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Ukraine unsuccessfully demanded the return of the animals, and RIA Novosti reported that Moscow planned to expand the scheme. “Our specialists developed new devices that convert dolphins’ underwater sonar detection of targets into a signal to the operator’s monitor. The Ukrainian navy lacked funds for such know-how, and some projects had to be mothballed,” one source told the Russian news agency. [Source: Lauren Aratani, The Guardian, April 28, 2022]

Two years later, the Russian navy announced plans to buy five more dolphins, launching a bidding process for a 1.75 meters ruble — about $21,000 — contract to deliver dolphins to the Sevastopol base by the end of the summer. It is unclear whether the dolphins believed to be in Sevastopol today are the same ones that came out of this contract. Satellite imagery from 2018 revealed Russia also used dolphins at its naval base in Tartus, Syria during the Syrian war.

Dolphins are not the only ocean creatures that Russian military may have trained. A beluga whale spotted off the coast of Norway in 2019 was believed to be trained by the Russian navy. Fishermen reported a beluga whale wearing strange harnesses, which may have held cameras, harassing their boats, pulling on straps and ropes from the side of boats.

Dolphins and the Ukraine War

At the beginning of the Ukraine War in 2022 Russia deployed trained military dolphins at its naval base in the Black Sea — possibly to protect its fleet from an underwater attack — according to analysis of satellite images. Satellite images captured by Maxar Technologies show two pens containing trained dolphins belonging to the Russian Navy at the harbor of Sevastopol, then a major port in Russian-occupied Ukraine in Crimea on the Black Sea.

The Guardian reported: The US Naval Institute (USNI) reviewed satellite imagery of the naval base at Sevastopol harbor, and concluded that two dolphin pens were moved to the base in February at the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The Sevastopol naval base is crucial for the Russian military, as it sits in the southern tip of Crimea which Moscow seized in 2014. According to the USNI’s analysis, many of the Russian ships anchored there, while out of range from missiles, are potentially vulnerable to undersea attacks. [Source: Lauren Aratani, The Guardian, April 28, 2022]

In April 2023, Ukrainska Pravda reported: The entrance to the harbour in temporarily occupied Sevastopol, where surface drones were able to break through, is protected by many physical barriers and is under the supervision of boats, helicopters, and combat dolphins....The entrance to Sevastopol harbor is now protected by no less than 6 layers of physical barriers. This adds to the patrol boats, helicopter patrols, anti-diver dolphins and gun emplacements." Naval News notes that the enhanced defence of the bays is primarily directed against Ukrainian naval drones. After all, Sevastopol is the main naval base of the Russian Navy in Crimea and, therefore, a key target for Ukraine, "especially in the event of any planned counteroffensive". [Source: Ukrainska Pravda, April 25, 2023]

By June 2023, Russia had doubled the number of trained dolphins defending its Black Sea fleet in the Crimean peninsula according to analysis by Naval News. Business Insider reported: The number of dolphins being kept at the port has recently doubled from three or four to six or seven, H I Sutton, an expert on submarine and sub-surface systems and technologies, wrote for Naval News. This comes after several drone attacks targeting Russia's ships in the area, as Ukrainian forces launched their recent counteroffensive in the long-running conflict. The animals are trained to defend against Ukrainian special forces divers — or combat swimmers — who might try to invade the base. The dolphins have an "inherent advantage," as "no one can out-swim a dolphin," Sutton reported. Dolphins can reach speeds of 37 mph. Marine animals in these programs, including dolphins and beluga whales, are trained to find combat swimmers and detect mines, according to Sutton. "Our specialists developed new devices that convert dolphins' underwater sonar detection of targets into a signal to the operator's monitor," a source told Russian news agency RIA Novosti last year, per The Telegraph. [Source: Isobel van Hagen, Business Insider, June 17, 2023]

More than 100 dolphins were feared dead in Black Sea due to Russian naval activity associated with the war in Ukraine. Ivan Rusev, Head of the Research Department of the Tuzly Estuaries National Park in southwest Ukraine, reported the mammals' deaths in a May 1 Facebook post. Many of the dead dolphins had symptoms showing they were "likely affected by military sonar," said Rusev, also a doctor of ecology. Most were Black Sea bottlenose dolphins, the scientist said. "Unfortunately, during April 2023 , more than a hundred dead dolphins have already been registered in the bays of Sevastopol and other shores of the occupied Crimea and nearby Novorossyska, Sochi, Gelendzhik... affected by military sonarami," Rusev wrote. Novorossyska, Sochi, Gelendzhik are all port cities or nearby resort towns along the Black Sea coast. In his post, Rusev also wrote 77 dead whales have also been identified in the Crimea since January. While at least 100 dead animals have already been registered, the death toll is much higher, with scientists believing the number surpasses 1,000, the post continues. [Source: Natalie Neysa Alund, USA TODAY, May 3, 2023]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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