Update: Ukrainian Military Dolphins Not Actually on the Loose


If you're swimming in the Black Sea, beware dolphins with weapons strapped to their heads.



Update! Sad news, friends. It turns out that one piece of the Ukrainian dolphin story is, in fact, a hoax. No dolphins from the Ukrainian army's complement have actually escaped, according to this newspaper report. The hoax began with this faked report from the museum director, which led to a story by RIA Novosti. The strangest thing about this is how plausible the whole thing actually is. Gregg studies dolphins for a living and did not seem skeptical. That's because the US and Ukrainian military do indeed have dolphins, which they've been, according to previous reports, training for combat. A reader wrote in to tell me that when he was a young sailor in Turkey, this beluga whale was rumored to have escaped from a military installation in Crimea. That is to say, the oddest part of this story -- that dolphins have regularly been used in the military -- is unchanged. But the specifics turn out to be a hoax. Our apologies for the mistake. In recompense, allow me to give you this video about the history of militarized dolphins.

 Dolphin scientist Justin Gregg brings us this slightly disturbing, if hilarious, bit of Delphic news. The Ukrainian military has apparently lost three of its trained dolphins in the Black Sea. Which might not be so bad, except.... Well, Gregg sets it up perfectly:

Uh oh - it seems the Ukrainian Navy has a small problem on their hands. After rebooting the Soviet Union's marine mammal program just last year with the goal of teaching dolphins to find underwater mines and kill enemy divers, three of the Ukrainian military's new recruits have gone AWOL. Apparently they swam away from their trainers this morning ostensibly in search of a "mate" out in open waters. It might not be such a big deal except that these dolphins have been trained to "attack enemy combat swimmers using special knives or pistols fixed to their heads." So if you are planning a family holiday to the Black Sea this week, I think it's best you avoid any "friendly" dolphins that might approach - especially if they have KNIVES or PISTOLS strapped to their heads.

Who would not want to watch the film adaptation of this story? It'd sort of be like abstract expressionist painting plus Free Willy plus Rambo. And it'd be told from the perspective of the dolphins with subtitles for their clicks. And filmed in 3D and at 48 frames a second. It would be directed by Werner Herzog. The first hour and twenty-eight minutes would be dolphins eating fish, the last two minutes would be them saving the world from terrorist combat swimmers.

The Ukrainian navy's dolphin program has a long pedigree. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted that trainers there inherited the Soviet military's 70 trained dolphins after the Soviet Union collapsed. Some of them were retrained to help with child therapy and other civilian tasks. The others? Well... 

(If you like that news, Gregg produces a radio show called (cough) The Dolphin Pod.)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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