Russia has deployed trained military dolphins at its naval base in the Black Sea – possibly to protect its fleet from an underwater attack – according to new analysis of satellite images.
The US Naval Institute (USNI) reviewed satellite imagery of the naval base at Sevastopol harbour, and concluded that two dolphin pens were moved to the base in February at the start of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has a history of training dolphins for military purposes, using the aquatic mammal to retrieve objects or deter enemy divers.
The Sevastopol naval base is crucial for the Russian military, as it sits in the southern tip of Crimea which Moscow seized in 2014. According to the USNI’s analysis, many of the Russian ships anchored there, while out of range from missiles, are potentially vulnerable to undersea attacks.
Ukraine had also trained dolphins at an aquarium near Sevastopol, in a program born out of a Soviet-era scheme that fell into neglect in the 1990s.
During the cold war, both the US and the Soviet Union developed the use of dolphins whose echolocation capabilities can allow them to detect underwater objects such as mines.
The US has spent at least $28 million maintaining its own troops of dolphins and sea lions – which are also trainable – to potentially help with conflicts.
The Sevastopol program was resurrected in 2012 by the Ukrainian navy, but the mammals fell into Russian hands after the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Ukraine unsuccessfully demanded the return of the animals, and RIA Novosti reported that Moscow planned to expand the scheme.
“Our specialists developed new devices that convert dolphins’ underwater sonar detection of targets into a signal to the operator’s monitor. The Ukrainian navy lacked funds for such know-how, and some projects had to be mothballed,” one source told the Russian news agency.
Two years later, the Russian navy announced plans to buy five more dolphins, launching a bidding process for a 1.75m ruble – about $21,000 – contract to deliver dolphins to the Sevastopol base by the end of the summer. It is unclear whether the dolphins believed to be in Sevastopol today are the same ones that came out of this contract.
Satellite imagery from 2018 revealed Russia also used dolphins at its naval base in Tartus, Syria during the Syrian war.
Dolphins are not the only ocean creatures that Russian military may have trained. A beluga whale spotted off the coast of Norway in 2019 was believed to be trained by the Russian navy. Fishermen reported a beluga whale wearing strange harnesses, which may have held cameras, harassing their boats, pulling on straps and ropes from the side of boats. – Guardian