The Dolphins of War
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Both American and former Soviet navies have had top secret projects using dolphins for covert military purposes. John Davison investigates.

A Soviet Special Forces diver is parachuted from extreme altitude into sensitive waters. His secret mission is to use highly sophisticated sonar equipment to locate a piece of valuable military hardware which has accidentally splashed down in the wrong place. In the event of meeting an enemy diver, this Hero of the People is equipped with a futuristic weapon which will inject his adversary with 3,000psi of carbon dioxide and literally blow him up.

Sounds like a scene from the latest re-make of Thunderball? Well, all this really happened, and it gets better ... or worse. The highly-trained operative was a dolphin.

The controversial use of dolphins and other sea mammals by the US Navy has been known about for a number of years, although the exact extent and nature of its activities is still shrouded in military secrecy. But details of the parallel Soviet developments in the field are only now starting to emerge, and they tell a fascinating, literally fantastic, Cold War story. They also beg the question as to whether the Americans have been doing the same things.

The idea of training airborne dolphins, for example, almost beggars belief. But conservation campaigners have seen the evidence and heard the tale first-hand from the former Soviet naval personnel who trained the animals to ‘jump’ from heights of up to three kilometres to avoid detection. Other dolphin ‘soldiers’ were pitched directly from helicopters hovering at 50 feet above the sea.

‘If I hadn’t seen the evidence myself I just wouldn’t have believed it,’ says Doug Cartlidge, a dolphin consultant and front-line campaigner with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). He visited the highly secret naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, home to the once-proud Dolphin Division, to advise trainers on alternative uses for their expertise and on care of the animals, now that both are surplus to military requirement. While there he was shown around the unit’s museum and saw a full-size model of a dolphin wearing a parachute harness. He also saw official documents which described the programme.

‘I was amazed at how open and honest they were about the whole thing. But they are desperate for help,’ says Cartlidge, who once ran the dophinarium at Windsor Safari Park but has since campaigned for the release of captive dolphins. He was even taken on exercise with the few remaining military-trained animals.

The unit is now part of the independent Ukrainian navy, but there are no funds to run it. Indeed the whole future of the former Soviet Black Sea fleet, based at Sevastopol, remains mired in dispute with Russia. A special ship used by the unit to transport its animals to hot-spots, for example, was recently commandeered by the Russian navy. In the meantime the Dolphin Division has been selling off most of its animals to make ends meet. It has also gone into business with a private company to capture at least 32 more from the wild for training and eventual sale to dophinariums in Turkey, Malta and Israel at prices of up to £50,000 each. ‘The unit once had over 100 dolphins, but now it has only got about four left,’ says Cartlidge.

The most controversial of its past activities was the training of ‘killer dolphins’ for use against enemy divers. The US has always strenuously denied that its animals have been used in this way, and even some leading animal rights campaigners there have been sceptical about the possibility of doing it. A dolphin is so sensitive to distress signals from divers, they say, that even if it were possible to get an animal to unwittingly kill once, it would not do the same thing again. It would learn that its actions led to the diver’s distress, and would simply refuse to repeat them, making the whole operation impractical. The secrets of Sevastopol, however, have shown how the Soviets devised a way of doing just this. Does the US, after all, have a similar system

A known use for dolphins by both superpowers was in guarding naval installations. The animals would be trained to patrol areas surrounding the base and to recognise intruders. If an intruder was located then they would ‘report back’ to their handlers, acting as an effective early warning system. The Soviets, however, gave this apparently benign activity a potentially fatal twist. Its ‘guards’ would carry a titanium clamp on a harness, and be trained to simply bump into any diver they found before returning to raise the alarm. The clamp was designed to attach itself to the diver when the dolphin bumped him in a way that it could not be removed, and in it was a device about the size of a table tennis ball capable of injecting the high-pressure charge of CO2 into the diver’s body. This was not done immediately, however, because the preference was to take any intruders alive. Only if a search failed to locate the enemy, or force him to the surface, was the device activated remotely.

‘As the commander there said to me: "That would bring him to the surface," ’ says Cartlidge, imitating a Ukrainian accent ‘It would, of course. But it would be with his guts spewing out both ends.’ Delightful. And friendly ‘Flipper’ would know nothing about it. Again, Doug was shown one of these devices and given a full explanation of its workings by those who used to deploy them.

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