In an attempt to bolster its naval protection, the Russian Navy has deployed trained military dolphins at its Black Sea naval base to protect its fleet from an underwater attack by divers or Swimmer Delivery Vehicles, SDVs.

Naval analyst H I Sutton on Twitter was the first to determine the usage of naval military dolphins by Russian in Sevastopol. While the Sevastopol harbor is out of range for Ukrainian missiles, it is not out of range for Ukrainian Special Forces to attack Russian naval vessels docked in the harbor. Until the recent sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva, the Kremlin had taken a dim view of Ukrainian naval operational ability, they appear to be taking nothing for granted now.

According to Sutton, satellite images of the Sevastopol harbor appear to show two dolphin pens were present at the entrance to the anchorage at Sevastopol Sutton says that the move could be a preventive measure against Ukrainian special forces sabotaging and destroying Russian warships as marine animals have been trained in the past for these specific purposes.

Not A New Military Program

Russia has an extensive history of using marine animals including dolphins and beluga whales for military purposes (particularly during the Cold War), specifically for them to retrieve objects, monitor waters for enemies and attacks, or sweep for mines.

The SOFREP team, led by Editor-in-Chief Sean Spoonts had recently discussed the history of the Soviet Union and its usage of various marine animals for military uses. One particular account he remembered was of the Soviet Navy’s research and training facility at Kazachya Bukhta. He remembered a Beluga whale trained by the Soviet military, which escaped twice in 1991 and 1992 and showed up in Turkey causing a mildly amusing international incident as the Russians attempted to recover the whale over the protests of Turkish locals who adopted it as a kind of pet.

SOFREP has actually written about this incident the past. This particular Beluga whale was called Tichka, who escaped the Biotechnical Systems Institute of the Russian military base situated in Sevastopol while a strong storm raged on. The storm opened the sea pens and off went Tichka to the open waters.

Aydin, or Tichka, showing the scar on his upper right lip. From A Farewell to Whales by Pierre Béland, photographer unknown (Dolphin Project). Source: https://www.dolphinproject.com/blog/one-whales-story-tichka-aydin/
Aydin, or Tichka, showing the scar on his upper right lip. From A Farewell to Whales by Pierre Béland, photographer unknown (Dolphin Project)

Tichka would then wander the Black Sea for months till he arrived in Gerze, Turkey in January 1992. Being accustomed to people being around him, he was loved by the locals and tourists due to the whale’s ability to do tricks. Eventually, he would be renamed “Aydin” meaning “the enlightened” or “the clever one” in Turkish. When he was handed back to the Russians in April of 1992, Tichka escaped again due to a storm in November 1992 and went back to Gerze. He would be last seen in 1993 before vanishing completely.

The program of training marine animals for military purposes would move very much into the shadows when the slow-motion train wreck of the Soviet Union’s collapse occurred from 1989 to 1992. The marine program was taken over by Ukraine when it declared independence and its territory included Crimea and Sevastopol naval base. Ukraine wanted to bring it back up to full operations only to see itself invaded by Russia and see it annex Crimea where the program was based. The Russians then attempted to reconstitute the program itself.

During this time, the Russians developed new devices to convert dolphins’ underwater sonar detection into a signal that would pop up on the operator’s monitors. 10 years into the program, Russia’s advancements in the area would manifest on the international stage when another beluga whale approached fishermen in Inga, Norway in 2019. Nicknamed “Hvaldimir” by the locals, the fishermen immediately noticed the weird harness that the whale wore.

“We were going to put out nets when we saw a whale swimming between the boats,” fisherman Joar Hesten said in 2019. “It came over to us, and as it approached, we saw that it had some sort of harness on it.”

Eventually, they removed the harness and found the words “Equipment of St. Petersburg” inscribed, which led many military experts to believe that the Russians trained the whale for military purposes as it actively swam and checked the boats. It was later revealed that Russia had actually reopened three former Soviet bases on the Arctic coastline and trained beluga whales, seals, and bottlenose dolphins for military purposes. Specifically, these seals and dolphins would be used to carry tools for divers and detect torpedoes, mines, and other ammunition that had sunk.  In the Arctic program, the Russians favored seals and beluga whales because of their better adaptation to the icy cold waters of the Baltic and Barents Seas.

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The US Navy Has its own Program as Well

The US Navy has also trained military dolphins and sea lions for similar military purposes through the US Navy Marine Mammal Program based in San Diego California. The program reportedly started in 1960 when the US Navy worked with dolphins and sea lions to detect mines, guard bases, and help with the designing of new submarines.  While located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the navy program still used Bottle-Nosed Dolphins from the Atlantic Ocean, because they are larger and proved more easily trained than porpoises found in the Pacific.

SOFREP CEO Brandon Webb wrote about how the US-trained and utilized these intelligent marine animals as part of the Marine Mammal Systems (MMS). According to him, the usage of sea lions and dolphins was integral to the Navy as the objects and equipment lost at sea are extremely expensive to replace. More so, it could also present a huge danger to Navy personnel and vessels as well. Thus, the US military trained these marine animals to help us out with their incredible biological sonars and sensitive underwater directional hearing.

In the US program, these dolphins and sea lions fell into certain categories called “marks (MK),” each one with specific functions to perform (however they could be cross-trained to perform multiple functions). According to Webb, there are 5 marine mammal systems called MK 4, MK 5, MK 6, MK 7, and MK 8.

  • MK 4, MK7, and MK 8 utilize dolphins.
  • MK 5 utilizes sea lions.
  • MK 6 utilizes both sea lions and dolphins.

It is further important to note that MK 4 dolphins are used to detect and mark locations of floating tethered sea mines, while MK 7 dolphins are known to be used to detect and mark mines on the seafloor or when buried, and MK 8 dolphins are used to identify safe passage for troops ashore. MK 5 sea lions are mainly used for object recovery, particularly when there is equipment that is test-fired or when equipment is dropped from planes into the water. MK 6 sea lions and dolphins are used as sentries to protect harbors and harbor installations as well as alert humans of enemy divers.  The work of finding human divers had a deadly dimension to it.

 

An NMMP sea lion attaches a recovery line to a piece of test equipment during training (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NMMP_Sea_Lion_Recovering_Test_Object.jpeg
An NMMP sea lion attaches a recovery line to a piece of test equipment during training (NMMP photo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Making Flipper a Killer Was a Gas

The Navy officially says there are no marine mammals that were used for attack missions against ships or people as they could not identify enemy divers from friendly divers. However, an unnamed source from Mr. Webb’s 2016 article did reveal that dolphins did use CO2 anti-swimmer cartridges that inject divers with compressed nitrogen.

This statement comes directly from Mr. Webb’s 2016 article, where an anonymous Navy SEAL confirms MK 6 military dolphins can kill divers using the CO2 anti-swimmer cartridges:

“One of the MK 6 dolphins was named Jake and he was a real bastard to dive against. All the dolphins were very intelligent but none matched Jake’s aggression. They eventually retired him and I heard that this dolphin actually had enemy diver KIA.

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) of the NMMP on mineclearance operations, with locator beacon. K-Dog, a bottle-nose dolphin belonging to Commander Task Unit (CTU) 55.4.3, leaps out of the water in front of Sgt. Andrew Garrett while training near the USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) in the Persian Gulf. Attached to the dolphin's pectoral fin is a "pinger" device that allows the handler to keep track of the dolphin when out of sight. CTU-55.4.3 is a multi-national team consisting of Naval Special Clearance Team-One, Fleet Diving Unit Three from the United Kingdom, Clearance Dive Team from Australia, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Units Six and Eight (EODMU-6 and -8). These units are conducting deep/shallow water mine countermeasure operations to clear shipping lanes (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NMMP_dolphin_with_locator.jpeg
Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) of the NMMP on mineclearance operations, with locator beacon. K-Dog, a bottle-nose dolphin belonging to Commander Task Unit (CTU) 55.4.3, leaps out of the water in front of Sgt. Andrew Garrett while training near the USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) in the Persian Gulf. Attached to the dolphin’s pectoral fin is a “pinger” device that allows the handler to keep track of the dolphin when out of sight. CTU-55.4.3 is a multi-national team consisting of Naval Special Clearance Team-One, Fleet Diving Unit Three from the United Kingdom, Clearance Dive Team from Australia, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Units Six and Eight (EODMU-6 and -8). These units are conducting deep/shallow water mine countermeasure operations to clear shipping lanes (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Brien Aho., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

We would do several dives a day and try everything to avoid detection, hiding under boats next to the keel, stirring up silt from the bottom, and hiding among pier pilings. Nothing worked to our advantage, the longest time it took one of the dolphins to find and simulate a kill on seven pairs of divers was within minutes.

The dolphins would have their simulated CO2 system attached to their nose, they would then ram us in the chest cavity to simulate the injection. The dolphins could kill just with this force alone (we had to dive with special padding) but the idea was to recover the bodies and any intelligence.

I actually saw one of the heavy gauge needles that attaches to their nose along with the harness and CO2 containers that were positioned just behind the head. They’re incredibly smart mammals and not pleasant to dive against.”

The Russians would not be hesitant at all to use sea lions and dolphins to kill divers, of course, this would make the animals a danger to their own handlers in the water as well since they think that what they are doing is ‘playing’ and then being rewarded by their handler for doing it right.

In Sevastopol harbor, the dolphins would be there most probably to detect submerged mines at the entrance to the harbor or perhaps to intercept divers they believe Ukraine’s military might have that could place limpet mines on the bottom of vessels at the pier.  While Ukraine lacks a submarine that could move divers close to the harbor from the open water of the Black Sea, it should be remembered that Russian held Crimea isn’t entirely Russian in its sympathies.  Ukraine could infiltrate its Special Forces divers into Crimea by land who could then attack Russian ships in Sevastopol naval base entering the water from anywhere along the miles-long inlet that forms the bay of Sevastopol.