A U.S. trained military dolphin. Image: U.S. Navy photo.
According to satellite imagery, Russia has deployed trained dolphins to a Crimean port in the Black Sea.
As first reported by analyst H I Sutton at USNI News—a site run by the U.S. Naval Institute—Russia has moved trained military dolphins to Sevastopol harbor on the Black Sea. Satellite imagery from the port shows the presence of two animal pens just inside the sea wall. The pens arrived in February, according to Sutton, around the same time Russia escalated its war in Ukraine.
The military dolphins are meant to protect Sevastopol and its resources from attack. Both the United States and the Soviet Union began to train sea mammals for military operations during the Cold War. Typically, they patrol the area near their deployment and notify handlers if they see mines or a diver in the area.
The Black Sea, and the port of Sevastopol in particular, are strategically important for Russia. It gives Russia access to Ukraine’s southern border, including the important ports at Odessa. Should Russia take Odessa, it would cut Kyiv off from trade and have an easier time making in-roads to the western half of the country. Russia has attacked Odessa, but hasn’t been successful in capturing it.
At last count, the U.S. has about 70 dolphins and 30 sea lions doing the work of protecting strategic locations. Less is known about Russia’s specific capabilities, but we do know it has trained whales as well as dolphins. In 2019, a white beluga whale wearing a Russian harness with a camera attached appeared off the coast of Norway. Some called the whale a spy, others wanted to offer it asylum. Locals named him Hvaldimir and removed the harness.
Russia has seemingly doubled down on military marine mammals in the past few years. As it’s expanded its territory in the arctic, it’s done so alongside a small contingent of whales and seals. Satellite imagery has revealed the presence of beluga whale pens at the Olenya Guba naval base in the Arctic. Russia also deployed its dolphins to the Mediterranean in 2018 as part of its involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
Handlers and analysts say that military sea creatures are highly effective at protecting ports and detecting mines. U.S. dolphins and sea lions are trained to recognize and engage enemy divers. First deployed in Vietnam, American dolphins acted as harbor sentires. When they notice an enemy swimmer, they swim back to a human partner. The partner then places a nose cone with a buoy on the dolphin who swims back to the enemy diver and attaches the buoy onto their body. The dolphin swims away and the buoy floats to the surface, marking the enemy swimmer.
U.S. military sea lions are part of a Shallow Water Intruder Detection System. The sea lion carries a spring-loaded D-clamp attached to a line. The American-trained sea lion creeps up on the enemy swimmer, uses its mouth to attach the D-clamp to their leg, then swims away. Then a human partner reels in the swimmer like a fish.
The Pentagon has denied it used the animals to kill people, but Navy Seals and former dolphin trainers both have described weaponized dolphins bearing large syringes attached to their heads. According to these accounts, the animals get close enough to fire the syringe to the diver and kill them.
A British dolphin expert once visited the Russian military dolphins in Sevastopol after they’d asked for help cycling out some of the older dolphins. It was there he saw a contraption and read documents detailing a Soviet-era weapon that allowed dolphins to inject people with 3,000psi of carbon dioxide. Under that kind of pressure, people tend to explode.
“If I hadn’t seen the evidence myself I just wouldn’t have believed it,” the dolphin expert said later. “I was amazed at how open and honest they were about the whole thing.”