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Military Porpoises: Why dolphins, whales and sea lions have been trained by foreign military since the 1950s

Dolphins possess sophisticated sonar which helps them detect mines on the ocean floor.
May 4th 2019, 10:00 PM 17,656 12

Dolphin in America Bottlenose dolphin Source: DPA/PA Images

A BELUGA WHALE spotted in Norwegian waters may have been trained by Russia for military purposes, it emerged earlier this week. 

The aquatic mammal was found by fishermen off the small village of Ingoya with local news outlet VG reporting that it was wearing a harness bearing the words “Equipment of St. Petersburg”.

Whale training is not something carried out in Norway. Since the sighting, it’s been reported that the beluga is likely Russian in origin. 

And if it’s Russian then it is likely not for scientific research but for use by the military, experts have said. 

“If this comes from Russia and there is great reason to believe it, then it is not Russian scientists, but rather the navy that has done this,” Martin Biuw of the Institute of Marine Research told broadcaster NRK.

Meanwhile, Audun Rikardsen of Tromsø’s Arctic University of Norway has said the Russian navy in Murmansk – the headquarters for Russia’s northern fleet – could be involved.

Though a St. Petersburg beluga whale may seem a strange sighting, aquatic mammals – noted for their deep-dive abilities and sophisticated sonar – have in fact been trained for military use since the 1950s. 

‘No match’

The US navy has trained sea lions and dolphins since 1959 while, during the Cold War, the Soviet Navy also trained dolphins. So, what’s their purpose? 

Dolphins possess sophisticated sonar which helps them detect mines on the ocean floor. They can dive incredibly deeply and, like sea lions, have low light vision and underwater directional hearing .

According to the US navy’s Marine Mammal Programme, more than a dozen different species of marine mammals, as well as sharks, rays, sea turtles, and marine birds were tested, and their sensory and physical capabilities explored the programme’s early days. 

4000 St. Petersburg beluga spotted in Norwegian waters. Source: Associated Press

The cetaceans soon became valuable assets in the nation’s defence system.

The navy’s Marine Mammal Program has been located on Point Loma in San Diego since the 1960’s and today the navy relies on Bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions, which are known for their trainability and adaptability to a wide range of marine environments.

This research has generated over 1500 scientific publications in the open scientific literature on their health, physiology,  sensory systems, and behavior.

‘Enemy Frogmen’

Dolphins are trained to detect and mark dangerous object underwater and alert naval offciers to unauthorised swimmers or divers. 

In 2003, it was reported that dolphins were being used in the Iraq war to clear a southern Iraqi port of mines. Several military dolphins had been flown in from Bahrain to check Umm Qasr Port.

According to John Ismay, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, dolphins “see” enemy frogmen by sensing sound waves bouncing off the hard calcium deposits in human bones, “and can sense mines buried by mud and silt on the seafloor by sensing the air void inside the mine’s casing”.

Ismay has said dolphins “are fed a tailored diet of herring and mackerel among several kinds of fish daily. Through positive reinforcement with food and affection, each dolphin is trained to identify specific types of target — such as people, moored mines or bottom mines”. 

In February, Lina Zeldovich explored the tensions between the US navy – whose use of dolphins for military means has sparked debate over how ethical the practice is – and animal rights activists. 

In her piece, Zeldovich notes that the latter view the navy’s actions as “exploitative and immoral” while the military “sees its work as important, moral, and paramount to the safety of American citizens”. 

“Both sides state that they care about the animals, albeit in different ways.”

Day of. Day of the Dolphin (1973) Source: Embassy Pictures

Offensive weapons

Of course, marine mammals in the service of the military has also resulted in fiction only Hollywood could create. 

“Despite persistent rumours, dolphins are never trained to kill,” Ismay notes. That didn’t stop director Mike Nichols, however, from feeding such rumours for the silver screen. 

According to the US navy, decades of classification of the Navy’s 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 Day of the Dolphin – a 1973 movie starring George C. Scott -  reinforced the idea that aquatic mammals were used for darker purposes. In the film, dolphins are trained to place a mine on the hull of the yacht of the President of the United States.

For now, the US and Russian navy look likely to continue their cetacean training to track mines and explore the deep. 

In 2017, it was reported that the US Navy would replace its team of mine-tracking dolphins with under-water robots. That’s yet to happen, though. 

The US navy states on its website that “someday it may be possible to complete these missions with underwater drones, but for now technology is no match for the animals.”

So, have Ireland’s military ever trained dolphins, sea lions or whales? contacted a Defence Forces spokesperson to find out.

Their response?


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Cónal Thomas


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