Briefing

Killer dolphins? How Russia's navy is using trained marine mammals in its war against Ukraine

Don't call them Flipper

Russia, wary of letting any more of its high-value Black Sea naval ships fall prey to Ukrainian missiles, is sheltering many of its vessels out of range in Sevastopol harbor in Crimea. And the entrance to the harbor is being guarded by military dolphins, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Washington Post and H.I. Sutton, a submarine analyst at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Is Russia's navy really using military dolphins as part of Moscow's Ukraine invasion, or is this story too good to check?

How are the dolphins supposed to be helping Russia's military?

Satellite photos from Maxar Technologies show what appear to be two dolphin pens on either side of the entrance to Sevastopol harbor, prompting Sutton to hypothesize "the dolphins may be tasked with counter-diver operations," preventing "Ukrainian special operations forces from infiltrating the harbor underwater to sabotage warships." The U.S. and Soviet Union, then later Russia, have been training dolphins for this kind of thing since the 1960s, he noted. 

Is that true?

Yes. The U.S. Navy declassified its marine mammal training program, based in San Diego, in the 1990s, and Ukraine was open about the Soviet program when it inherited Crimea — and the dolphins trained near Sevastopol — after the Soviet Union's collapse. 

"Dolphins are trained to search for and mark the location of undersea mines that could threaten the safety of those on board military or civilian ships," the Navy's Marine Mammal Program explains. "Both dolphins and sea lions also assist security personnel in detecting and apprehending unauthorized swimmers and divers that might attempt to harm the Navy's people, vessels, or harbor facilities."

Wait, there are military sea lions, too?

The sea lions, the Navy says, primarily "locate and attach recovery lines to Navy equipment on the ocean floor." When the Navy began exploring the idea of using marine mammals, it tested the sensory and physical capabilities of "more than a dozen different species of marine mammals, as well as sharks, rays, sea turtles, and marine birds," the Naval Information Warfare Center explains. But they stuck with only California sea lions and bottlenose dolphins, both of which are "known for their trainability and adaptability to a wide range of marine environments," especially deep, dark, or murky waters.

The Russians also use beluga whales and seals, Hutton says.

But the dolphins and other marine mammals aren't used for combat?

The U.S. Navy has insisted it "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 Russians, on the other hand, may have been a little more aggressive with their marine conscripts. Russian state media reported in 2015 the irresistible news that Ukraine had lost three Soviet-trained "killer" dolphins to the mating impulse.

Did Russia really create killer dolphins? 

Well, a former dolphin trainer-turned-conservationist named Doug Cartlidge told Britain's Independent in 1998 that when he visited the once-secret Crimean dolphin facility, the Ukrainians told him about and showed him proof that the Soviets had outfitted dolphins with lethal devices that could inject enemy divers with CO2 and trained the marine mammals to parachute out of helicopters. "If I hadn't seen the evidence myself I just wouldn't have believed it," he said.

And when Norway captured a beluga whale in 2019 with a camera-equipped harness that read "Equipment St. Petersburg," a Russian reserve colonel named Viktor Baranets scoffed at the Norwegians' claim it was a Russian spy whale. "If we were using this animal for spying do you really think we'd attach a mobile phone number with the message 'please call this number'?" Baranets, who had observed military dolphin training in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, told Russian broadcaster Govorit Moskva. "We have military dolphins for combat roles, we don't cover that up."

"In Sevastopol we have a center for military dolphins, trained to solve various tasks, from analyzing the seabed to protecting a stretch of water, killing foreign divers, attaching mines to the hulls of foreign ships," Baranets added.

But does the U.S. really not use dolphins for combat?

The U.S. used dolphins to clear underwater mines in Iraq's Umm Qasr port during the Iraq War and protected U.S. ships and piers in the Vietnam War and the late 1980s off Bahrain, but the Navy says it doesn't weaponize its dolphin and sea lion "teammates." That hasn't stopped the rumors. 

"Several decades of classification of the program's true missions led to media speculation and animal activist charges of dolphins used as offensive weapons — claims that could not be countered due to that classification," the Naval Information Warfare Center offered. A 1973 movie, The Day of the Dolphin, about trained dolphins put to deadly use, "reinforced those ideas," and despite the Navy's best efforts, "there are those few who continue to actively promote" these rumors.

Should we believe that the U.S. military really cares about the welfare of sea mammals?

No, not really. But there are less altruistic reasons to avoid making intelligent marine mammals into lethal weapons. "Since dolphins cannot discern the difference between enemy and friendly vessels, or enemy and friendly divers and swimmers," the Navy said, "it would not be wise to give that kind of decision authority to an animal."

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