It sounds like something from a James Bond film, but reports from the Crimean peninsula that Russian forces have “taken control” of Ukraine’s secretive military dolphin programme are probably closer to Dr Evil’s laser-toting sharks in Austin Powers than military reality.
Dolphins have been used by American and Russian forces since the 1960s and media reports that the Sevastopol-based “elite dolphin combat unit” switched allegiance in recent days has made headlines all over the world. The news came after the Russian Black Sea Fleet took control of Ukraine’s naval forces on the disputed peninsula, where the clever marine mammal unit was reportedly formed, depending on which reports you trust, in either 2011 or 2012 to hunt frogmen, detect mines and protect ships.
It’s entertaining stuff amid a dour geo-political crisis, yet if you dig a little deeper, it emerges that the dolphin defection was disclosed by a Russian state-controlled news agency and was based on a single anonymous source. The news agency in question also has form in this particular aquatic area, after it reported in 2013 that several of the trained killers had escaped and were roaming around the Black Sea. It transpired that the “military expert” to whom the story was attributed was actually a disgruntled museum employee.
In fact, unlike the American military, the Ukrainian armed forces have never officially confirmed the existence of the secret dolphin combat unit (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist) and yesterday calls to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence went unanswered. Presumably, staff were rather busy with other things. Like loading assault rifles and digging trenches.
Like the waters off Sevastopol, the truth about the furtive Flippers is all very murky. What is certain though, is that the Russian and US navies have been drafting dolphins into service since the 1960s. It all started with a US Navy dolphin called Nutty in 1959, who was taken from a California marine park as a public-relations stunt. Sadly for him, he quickly showed an aptitude for such military tasks as tracking down lost torpedoes, guarding ships and detecting mines. Then, during the 1960s, as scientists such as John Lily (famous for experimenting with LSD) were busy studying dolphin sonar, the military realised that their friendly, loyal and inquisitive nature made them ideal for more widespread military service. By the early part of the decade, the US Marine Mammal Program was in full swing.
To avoid a “Dolphin Gap” and in the heat of the Cold War arms race, the Soviet Union responded with a programme of its own and soon both sides were developing techniques to use the 300kg animals in the event of war. Military quartermasters also had to work out how to feed their 10kg-a-day fish habits.
Very little is known about either programme, but today the US military is still thought to have somewhere in the region of 75 Pacific bottlenose dolphins on duty. They are reportedly able to deploy via a C-130 cargo plane anywhere in the world within 72 hours and have served in the Gulf during numerous conflicts.
Today, they are most likely to be found defending the US nuclear deterrent at ballistic missile submarine bases on America’s West Coast. And thankfully their more dangerous role of tracking down mines will expire in 2017, when a new type of underwater drone is set to be introduced.
Even less is known about the Soviet navy’s programme or if the modern Russian Navy uses dolphins (other than the alleged Ukrainian captives). There are some reports that it was established by the father of the Soviet Navy, Admiral Sergey Gorshkov, in the 1960s after the pride of the Soviet fleet sunk in mysterious circumstances.
Neither Cold War power was respected for how it treated the animals but the popularity of dolphins in the West is claimed to have kept US treatment of the marine mammals within certain limits. The same, sadly, can’t be said of the Soviet Union. There, a popular drama called Amphibious Man told the story of an aquatic superhero of the people and his dolphin sidekick. This did little to protect the Soviet Union’s underwater killers, though, some of which were subjected to gruesome conscious vivisection in a failed attempt to unlock the secrets of their sonar.