A US military project to train marine mammals such as dolphins, beluga whales, and sea lions for specific roles found a mention in a declassified report of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
America’s Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, had also launched a similar project that sought to make use of the sonar capabilities of marine mammals, particularly dolphins. However, activists have termed such initiatives as “exploitative and immoral”.
The US Navy launched its marine mammal program in 1960. In order to come up with methods of detecting submerged objects, the US Navy initiated the study of underwater sonar capabilities of dolphins and beluga whales.
The Navy seemed fascinated by the dolphins’ ability to dive much deeper into the oceans and swim at incredibly fast speeds. Apart from dolphins, the US Navy also trained beluga whales, sea lions, and some other marine mammals to deliver equipment underwater, locate and recover lost objects, and act as guards for naval vessels and submarines.
These types of marine species were also trained to conduct underwater surveillance by holding cameras in their mouths.
The Bottlenose dolphins were found capable of detecting and marking underwater mines. They were also trained to detect enemy swimmers and thwart their attempts to plant explosives on anchored vessels.
Why Marine Mammals?
It is believed that at the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s, the US Navy conducted detailed research on the potential use of marine mammals in various surveillance and operational roles.
According to the declassified CIA reports, Project Oxygas was undertaken to demonstrate the technical feasibility of using dolphins for numerous operational purposes. The Office of Research and Development expressed its interest to ascertain the reliability of the dolphin in placing an appropriate object on the mammal.
It also studied issues such as the operational range of the dolphins, problems of communication between the animal and its trainer, design of the appropriate payload shape etc.
In February 1964, the Maritime Branch of the Special Operations Division proposed the use of different trainers, and to build dolphin loyalty on “proper and accustomed signals and rewards” and not confined to the signals being given by their trainers.
It seems that the project of training dolphins moved along smoothly. In December 1964, $81,000 was requested to be sent to the Office of Naval Research, for the construction of the training facility for the Project Oxygas. The dolphin training facilities were slated to be constructed at US Naval Base, Key Base, Florida.
A May 1965 document sought more information on the possible use of dolphins to obtain acoustic tapes of Soviet nuclear submarines. The report stated the use of the dolphin as a “potential sensor emplacement asset”.
“A detailed recording, possibly through the attachment of the recording apparatus to the hull, may lead to a definitive understanding of the primary, secondary, and drive circuits of the nuclear propulsion” systems used aboard the different types of Soviet nuclear submarines, it said.
By the mid-1970s, the US navy started training sea lions and beluga whales. The sea lions were trained extensively to recover military hardware or weaponry from the ocean, as they were found to be capable of diving and retrieving objects from a depth of up to 650 feet.
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The Beluga whales could use sonar to navigate, quite similar to the dolphins. They could also operate in much colder ocean waters, in comparison to the dolphins and sea lions.
Five dolphins were sent to Cam Ranh Bay during the Vietnam War to conduct underwater surveillance and to guard US military boats against enemy swimmers. There were also rumors about a “swimmer nullification program”, under which dolphins were trained to attack any enemy swimmer, though the US Navy later clarified that it never trained any dolphin to attack humans.
The years 1986-88 saw six dolphins being sent to patrol the harbor in Bahrain to protect US flagships and to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers to safety. In 2003, two dolphins named Makai and Tacoma were sent to Iraq, where they cleared the way for the humanitarian aid-laden ships to Umm Qasr Port.
With the success of the dolphin program, the Navy began working on sea lions, training them to recover military hardware or weaponry fired and dropped in the ocean. The sea lions could dive and recover objects at depths of up to 650 feet.
The Navy also began exploring the use of beluga whales, which, like dolphins, use sonar to navigate. Beluga whales could operate at much colder temperatures and deeper depths than either dolphins or sea lions.
The Soviet Response
In 1965, the Soviet Navy started its marine life program on the Black Sea, near Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. In 1984, the Murmansk Marine Biological Institute was established on the Arctic Ocean.
However, the Soviet program was not as effective as the American one due to Soviet experts’ lack of familiarity with the basic operant conditioning techniques, reported The National Interest. Later on, the navy had to recruit circus handlers to build intimacy and train the dolphins.
The Soviet marine mammal program seems to be based on object retrieval and surveillance. It is said that the Soviet dolphins once located a prototype of Medevka anti-submarine torpedo. The Soviets also tested a device to detect intruding submarines through the dolphin sonars.
Unlike the US dolphins, Soviet dolphins were apparently trained to carry out lethal attacks. Russia Beyond (RBTH) quoted Russian scientist Gennady Matishov as saying that “their main role is to protect the waters of the fleet’s principal base against underwater saboteurs”.
“For instance, the bottlenose dolphins ‘graze’ at the entrance of the bay and, on detecting an intruder, immediately signal to an operator at a coastal surveillance point. After that, in response to the relevant command, they’re capable of killing an enemy on their own with a special dolphin muzzle with a spike,” Matishov explained.
Kamikaze dolphins were also reportedly trained by Russia who deposited limpet mines on the enemy submarines. It is believed that these dolphins were also trained to distinguish between the sounds made by the propellers of the Soviet submarines and those of the US.
‘Exploitative and Immoral’
Michele Bollo, an American animal activist, terms the navy’s use of marine mammals, particularly the dolphins as “exploitative and immoral”, according to Hakai Magazine. Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer-turned-marine mammal freedom fighter, had for years gathered documents highlighting the navy’s wrongdoings, dating back to the program’s very beginning.
The activists have also raised concern over the release of marine mammals after their tenure in the service is over. Both Bollo and Rector, who died in 2018, had said releasing the dolphins was a challenging task. As the navy dolphins are released into the wild waters, their survival in the wild becomes extremely difficult in the absence of training for foraging or hunting.
Andrew Fenton of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, said “unlike humans, who voluntarily join the military service or consent to testing, the animals have no choice. We subject them to our needs, oftentimes plucking them from the environment they’re familiar with and putting them in an unfamiliar and possibly stressful situation”.