All About the Military Dolphins of the US (And Now Russia)

In what is easily one of the stranger twists in the military takeover of Crimea, the Russians have seized control of Ukraine's navy dolphin fleet. Yes, dolphins. The annals of dolphin military history is actually teeming with improbable tales, so let this be your guide to the cetacean Cold War.

The "dolphin arms race" started all the way back in the 1960s, when the US and the Soviet Union were competing in just about every realm of military technology possible. Amidst all the secrecy, here is what we know about each side's trained dolphin capabilities.

The American Dolphins

Half a century ago, the Navy's Marine Mammal Program began training a whole menagerie of dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions, and other sea creatures for underwater tasks—even sharks with military brain implants have been considered, the latter quite recently. Of course, it was the agile and intelligent dolphin that showed some of the most promise. In Vietnam, the Navy had five dolphins that patrolled the waters around ships, alerting sailors to swimming enemies trying to plant a bomb.

Trained dolphins are also no stranger to the Persian Gulf. In the 1980s, six dolphins patrolled the harbor in Bahrain, escorting US flagships and Kuwaiti oil tankers. When the US was worried that Iran might try to block a strategic strait to the Persian Gulf in 2012, retired general Tim Keating mentioned our dolphins again.

The Navy now keeps several dozen dolphins off the coast of San Diego, training them to detect mines. "Apparently they're taught to hunt for mines and drop acoustic transponders nearby. Then, the Navy use the information to identify mines and send out human divers to detonate them," Gizmodo reported at the time.

The Soviet/Russian Dolphins

In additional to being able to detect mines like their American counterparts, Soviet dolphins were allegedly trained to attack divers with harpoons or knives attached to their backs. They also acted as marine kamikazes carrying mines that would rub up on the keels of enemy vessels. "Those dolphins could even distinguish between the sound of the propeller of foreign submarine and a Soviet one," according to Viktor Baranets, who worked in the Soviet military.

Soviet dolphin training took place in Crimea, so Ukraine inherited the dolphin fleet after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With time, the military program was largely disbanded. Many of these dolphins were sold to aquariums around the world. In 1999, some of these last dolphins were sold to Iran because their trainers had no money to feed them anymore.

But, in recent years, Ukraine had shown interest in reviving the program, even announcing in 2012 an ambitious plan to train killer dolphins with knives on their heads. But that never seems to have gotten off the ground because they were planning to disband the dolphin program this April—that is, until the Russians decided to take over, intending to revitalize it. "The work will save unique scientific developments that were abandoned due to Ukraine's reluctance to finance the research in the field," boasted Pravda.

Escape of the Killer Dolphins?

If anything better captivates the public imagination than the idea of "killer dolphins," it's "escaped killer dolphins." Last year, reports emerged that Ukrainian dolphins trained to "attack enemy combat swimmers using special knives or pistols fixed to their heads" had escaped into the Black Sea. That, in the end, turned out to be all a hoax.

But careful chroniclers of dolphin military history might have found parallels with the tale of American dolphins escaping during Hurricane Katrina. These toxic dart-carrying dolphins were supposedly to trained to kill underwater spies—or, given their escapee status, unsuspecting divers in the Gulf of Mexico. The US military has vehemently these dolphin assassins existed or escaped.

As outlandish as the details are, these escaped dolphin stories have a kernel of weird truth at their core, which is the truth that even dolphins have been drafted into military service. Flipper may not be so friendly. [The Atlantic, National Journal, PBS Frontline]

Top image: Krzysztof Odziomek/Shutterstock