The Dolphins of War
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More prosaically, it has previously been reported that Soviet dolphins were trained to carry out ‘kamikaze’ missions. Explosives were supposedly strapped to their backs and they were sent out to blow up enemy submarines. One estimate had it that a total of about 2,000 animals had died for the Motherland on these, and similar, operations.

It was, however, for the role of underwater guards that the Soviet dolphins were first recruited when the unit was established in 1966. That year the flagship of the Black Sea fleet mysteriously blew up and sank in Sevastopol harbour. Sabotage was suspected and the dolphins were trained to provide a novel extra layer of security.
The unit’s officers and men are now proud holders of a 30-year service medal. Other uses for the animals were soon developed, including search and recovery work following the test firing of navy missiles and torpedoes. The military wanted the weapons back because of the sophisticated computer guidance systems on them, and often they could not be detected using conventional sonar equipment. A dolphin’s superior sonar, for instance, can penetrate up to a metre-and-a-half under the sea-bed, allowing the animals to find objects that had become embedded in mud or sand. ‘I was told that they had a very high level of reliability doing this,’ says Doug.

It seems that he is not the only one who finds all this fascinating. Last month the security system on WDCS’s computers detected an attempt to hack into them by the Pentagon. The US Navy had previously asked for an advance copy of a report then being prepared by the group into the whole trade in Black Sea bottlenose dolphins. The report uses some of Cartlidge’s research, and somebody at the Pentagon was apparently unwilling to wait for publication day. The incident is now the subject of an official investigation. The report, which finally came out in the middle of May, charts the fate of 43 animals exported from the area to foreign dolphinariums since 1990. Depressingly, it shows that up to 23 of them subsequently died, and WDCS is calling for an end to the trade.

The Americans’ own Marine Mammal Program, once a top-secret affair, has become more visible since the end of the Cold War. A flattering TV documentary has been made, showing the admitted and more acceptable aspects of its activity, but animal rights campaigners in the US are convinced that the full story has still not been told. One former civilian trainer from the unit has repeatedly claimed that ‘killer’ dolphins have been used by the US, in a wonderfully named ‘swimmer nullification program’, only to be met by official denials.

In 1994 the US Navy announced that it was to pension off up to 30 of its 100 dolphins as part of the process of military ‘right-sizing’, and that it was planning to transfer the animals to dolphinariums and leisure parks. Since then there has been a growing clamour for the animals to be released back into the wild and for the whole operation to be closed down. This being America, the issue has been the subject of numerous legal actions and it has even reached the floor of Congress. In the process quite a lot of information has come to light.

The US programme, known as NRAD, is based at San Diego, California, and was established in 1959 with a single dolphin for the purpose of conducting scientific research into sonar. The research has continued ever since, but by 1994 the unit had grown to 123 animals, including 20 sea lions and several beluga and false killer whales used for recovering test-fire hardware from depths of up to 500 feet. At its height, the programme was said to cost about $8m a year. The first recorded use of dolphins on guard duty was in Vietnam in 1970, when six animals were kept in nets suspended from pontoons to warn of approaching enemy divers. The only other ‘operational deployment’ that has been admitted involved another five dolphins used to protect US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf for eight months in 1987–1988 during the Iran-Iraq war. One died of a virus while on active service, but it has been said that having heard about the operation, Iranian patrol boats would machine-gun any dolphins they saw, fearing that they were ‘American’ animals on spying or mine-laying operations. The US Navy has denied that dolphins were ever used during the Gulf War, or that it ever trained ‘kamikaze’ dolphins to carry mines to enemy ships. But it does says the animals have been used for mine hunting.

In 1990, the use of dolphins to guard Trident submarine bases was brought to a halt after a successful legal challenge from a consortium of 14 animal rights groups. The move followed allegations of mistreatment of the animals by the US Navy, including starvation and punching that were used as aids to training. Official documents released at the time revealed that 13 had died in navy hands over the previous three years.

The most recent allegation of US military use came in February this year, after the mysterious deaths of 22 dolphins whose bodies were found washed up on the Mediterranean coastline of France. All had a neat, fist-sized hole on the underside of their necks. British dolphin expert Leo Sheridan, who lives in the area, put forward the theory that the animals had been part of the American naval operation sending warships to the Gulf at the time of threatened military action against Iraq, and had been killed after ‘deserting’.

He claimed that they were from a secret programme at the San Diego centre, called the Cetacean Intelligence Mission, which was launched in 1989 and involved dolphins being trained for guard duties at the Trident bases and with ships on active duty. They would be fitted with neck collars and small electrodes under the skin which would transmit stress signals back to base if they discovered an enemy diver. Later versions of the system, he said, had two-way communication enabling a control room to stimulate the dolphins to attack and force an intruding diver down to a dangerous depth. The harnesses also carried a small explosive charge on the underside of the neck which could be detonated if for some reason the dolphin decided it had had enough of navy life, as amorous males are prone to do. ‘They slipped away from their handlers,’ said Sheridan. ‘The deaths of these deserters came from the radio-controlled explosion of their signal collars so that no one could find out their missions.’

Who knows? Given the bizarre history of this form of underwater warfare anything seems possible. Perhaps it is time for an outbreak of perestroika from the Americans, so more of their secrets can finally be known. But then again, don’t hold your breath.

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