As The Wire reported earlier this week, in addition to annexing Crimea, Russia stole Ukraine’s killer dolphin army. The dolphin army (or navy, depending on your point of view) will be joining forces with Moscow's existing killer sea lion unit. Yes, these are real animals in service to their country's military. Even the United States Navy has a sea creature division which includes dolphins, sea lions and whales.
What are the world's greatest military forces doing with enlisted marine mammals? We did some digging to find out exactly what a sea creature commando can do, and if they've done any real damage in the past.
Ukraine’s dolphin commando unit was allegedly trained to defend ships with knives attached to their heads (seriously), but dolphins are capable of much more. Bottlenose dolphins can also be trained to “retrieve equipment lost at sea and to identify intruders swimming into restricted areas.”
The dolphins' most impressive skill makes them expert mine finders. The Navy Marine Mammal Program has found that dolphin sonar, known as echolocation, “makes them uniquely effective at locating sea mines so they can be avoided and removed.” Basically, this makes dolphins incredible at telling apart man-made objects from natural objects even in murky, deep waters; even better than similar machines can do. When the dolphin finds a mine, it swims back to the boat and signals the naval crew by poking a ball or disk with its nose. The crew then gives the dolphin a weighted buoy line or an acoustic transponder to mark the location of the mine.
Between 1986 and 1988, the U.S. Navy sent six dolphins into the Persian Gulf to patrol for mines. One brave veteran, Skippy the Dolphin, died of a bacterial infection during this mission. Overall, the Navy is incredibly careful with their dolphin mine hunters, although they have insisted in the past that the risk to dolphins is “virtually nil because the animals are trained to stay a safe distance away from any mines they find.” Mines are also specifically designed not to go off when marine life comes near them, as they are triggered by large and heavy ships.
The U.S. Navy has a fleet of 75 mine hunting dolphins, and they spend about $14 million a year maintaining the program. Tom LaPuzza, spokesperson for the US Navy, believes combat dolphins are irreplaceable when it comes to mine hunting: “It’s doubtful anything man-made will ever match the dolphins’ capabilities.”
Sea lions are also an important component of the sea creature combat force. While they don’t have sonar, they have exceptional eyesight. They can dive and find objects as far as 650 feet below the surface. Sea lions are regularly used to retrieve things, such as lost equipment, in the ocean. The Navy has trained sea lions to recover “military hardware or weaponry fired and dropped in the ocean."
The Navy also has a Shallow Water Intruder Detection System. This is a fancy way for saying "attack sea lions." These sea lions are trained to carry a “spring loaded D clamp attached to a line. The sea lion approaches an intruder from behind, attaches the clamp to their leg and swims off. The intruder is then reeled in like a fish by the security team.” Thus, the invading human frog diver is captured by the sea lion with relative ease. LaPuzza remarks that sea lions are incredibly effective at this: “It’s difficult to put up effective resistance when you’re being dragged backwards through the water.” Sea lions are awesome at capturing humans, but LaPuzza assures the public that sea lions absolutely do not kill, even though we like to imagine that they very easily could if they wanted to.
Lest we leave out whales, the Navy introduced these big guys to the sea creature commando force in 1975. Beluga whales have sonar just like dolphins, but “could operate at much colder temperatures and deeper depths than either dolphins or sea lions.” Beluga whales are also trained to use clamps to mark targets, like you see here in the photo. Whales aren't on the front lines quite as often as sea lions or dolphins, but they are still super adorable.
Conclusion: Not only are dolphins, whales and sea lions all adorable creatures, they are much better equipped to handle deep seas than even the best military technology. They (probably) won’t kill you, but if they're on your side, they'll keep the bad guys away from the door.