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.

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