Military Dolphins: James Bonds of the Sea
The facts behind the stories of military dolphins trained to attack divers and plant mines on ships.
It was 1973 when one particular plot to assassinate the President of the United States was thwarted. Dolphins, secretly trained for rudimentary communication with humans, had been fitted with harnesses to hold a magnetic limpet mine, which was to be attached to the hull of the President's yacht. It was the first time the public became aware that dolphins were employed in this manner by the U.S. military.
This was, of course, not reality, but the plot of the fictitious movie The Day of the Dolphin starring George C. Scott as a virtuous marine scientist. It played upon the idea that dolphins are used by the military to conduct dangerous underwater attacks, such as planting limpet mines on ships and attacking divers. Most people have heard these stories anecdotally and we generally assume them to be true. And like most urban legends, the idea of attack dolphins is not entirely fictitious.
This topic is deserving of a solid disclaimer. Some of what follows has disturbing ethical implications, and many may find it to be offensive. In this episode we're taking that for granted, and will discuss only the facts of what has happened. Be forewarned, and don't read any further if you don't want potentially unhappy memories.
Let's look at what's publicly known about military dolphins. The United States Navy Marine Mammal System currently employs bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions in three basic roles: guarding ships and ports against enemy divers, recovering lost hardware, and locating underwater mines. Throughout the program's history, marine mammals have deployed in 25 countries. Other mammals have been employed in the past, including pilot whales and belugas.
Dolphins and sea lions have advantages that are hard for navies to ignore. They swim far faster than divers, and are much easier and cheaper to deploy than remote underwater vehicles. They can dive hundreds of meters and return, with no concern about decompression, quicker than a human diver could even get suited up. Dolphins' underwater acuity is such that they can acoustically detect a 3-inch ball 200 meters away in complete darkness, and even discriminate between different kinds of metal. A dolphin's brain is famously larger than a human's, in part because so much of it is dedicated to processing sonar signals.
Dolphins are used to find underwater mines. Dolphins of the MK 4 MMS (Marine Mammal System) use their echolocation to find mines tethered to the sea floor. If they find one, they notify their handler by pressing a postitive-response paddle. The handler then gives the dolphin a marker containing an electronic transmitter, which the dolphin carries in a nose cup. The dolphin attaches the marker to the mine or its tether, and Navy demolition teams will later clear it. Dolphins of the MK 7 MMS perform a similar task, but they specialize in mines that are sitting on the bottom or even buried in sediment. Dolphins of the MK 8 MMS are trained to identify safe corridors for the initial landing of troops on shore. Their most publicized exploit was in 2003. In the first month after arriving in Iraq, six dolphins investigated 237 objects and cleared 100 mines.
The MK 5 MMS employs California sea lions to find and recover lost objects. They are used routinely to recover things like practice mines used in training, which are equipped with electronic pingers to make them intentionally easy to recover for re-use. The sea lions can also recognize and find objects that have been lost, using their acute low-light vision. They carry a bite plate with which they can attach a recovery line to the object, and are even trained to tug on it to make sure it's fast.
The MK 6 MMS is where the James Bond part comes in. Underwater, there is no contest between a human diver and either a dolphin or a sea lion. The difference in speed, agility, and stealth makes it embarrassing to be a human being. While a diver is lumbering along, a dolphin or sea lion can be in and out, and do whatever it wants, before the diver is even aware that anything has happened. MK 6 uses both dolphins and sea lions as sentries, guarding ships and ports against hostile divers. Even divers using stealthy rebreathers or swimmer delivery equipment have little defense against the marine mammals' senses and physical performance. MK 6 was deployed in the Vietnam War and has been used extensively in the Middle East since 1986.
Sea lions in the SWIDS (Shallow Water Intruder Detection System) program take this one step further. When they spot an intruder and notify their handler using the positive-response paddle, they are given marking hardware. The sea lion returns to the intruder and attaches the marker to his leg. The nature of this marker is not made public, but a safe assumption is that it makes a barbed whale harpoon look like a safety pin. What the Navy describes as "other security assets" then home in on the marker and do whatever it is they do. A sea lion's whole body is adapted specifically to chase agile fish at high speed and make a lightning-fast catch, and my analysis is that any intruding diver in the vicinity of a SWIDS team has a big problem.
And that, friends, is the extent of what the US Navy says it's ever done with marine mammals. But today's official story might not be the whole story. I'll give you a moment to recover from that shock.
In June of 1977, Penthouse magazine published an article called "The Pentagon's Deadly Pets" that told the story of the late Dr. James Fitzgerald. According to author Steve Chapple, Fitzgerald, an expert engineer in the use of sonar, was at a Navy cocktail party in Annapolis, MD in 1964 when he first floated the idea of using dolphins for military purposes. Soon, he was working for the CIA in Key West, training not only dolphins but all sorts of beaked whales that can dive deeper, and other marine mammals. One primary mission was the attachment of magnetic satchels to the hulls of ships. This had at least two potential uses: First, the attachment of explosives that could be used to sink the ship. Fitzgerald's animals were never able to restrict their attaching to only desired vessels, however, and this was deemed too risky to friendly ships to proceed with. Second, listening devices or other monitoring systems could be attached to enemy vessels. Penthouse's source for the article was a former CIA employee, Michael Greenwood, who had worked with Fitzgerald in the dolphin program. Greenwood told Chapple that the CIA once took one of Fitzgerald's dolphins aboard a boat disguised as a rumrunner and released it through a special underwater porthole, where it successfully attached a listening device to the hull of a Soviet nuclear powered ship.
The Penthouse article was lent extra credibility when Fitzgerald immediately sued Penthouse International, Chapple, Greenwood, and others for libel, based on a charge in the article that he'd tried to sell the dolphin technology to six nations in Central and South America. Documents were produced that included Fitzgerald's sales brochures in Spanish; and the judge found that for the purposes of this subject matter, Fitzgerald was enough of a public figure that he was fair game for printed criticism. Fitzgerald had even discussed his work on the TV news show 60 Minutes. Enough documentation was produced in the lawsuit to adequately evidence the events in the Penthouse article.
The closest Fitzgerald had ever come to physically attacking divers was to train dolphins to tear a diver's air hoses and rip off his mask, forcing him to surface. But this is only as far as we know from Fitzgerald himself and other official sources. When we expand our search radius, it turns out the US Navy might have done a little more. Soviet reports of Spetsnaz special operations teams state that two frogmen — saboteurs of a demolition group ironically called Delfin (Russian for dolphin) — were killed by dolphins in Vietnam in 1970, while attempting to place mines on the hull of an American cargo ship. Ever since that incident, Delfin members trained for combat against dolphins, and successfully killed dolphin aggressors off the coast of Nicaragua.
Following the publication of the Penthouse article and the subsequent lawsuit, Michael Greenwood (the former CIA employee) went on the TV show Tomorrow and told interviewer Tom Snyder that dolphins were in fact used to kill, being armed with either a knife or a charged gas injection device. Along with what he described as cruel treatment of the animals, this training for violence was, he said, what caused him to grow disillusioned with the dolphin program and resign. During the 1970s, American divers used a weapon called the Shark Dart, made by defense contractor Farallon USA. This was a long dagger-like needle with a CO2 cartridge that would inject the victim (shark or otherwise) with compressed gas and literally blow them up. If this is what was used, it would tie together Greenwood's claims with the Spetsnaz reports.
Soviet dolphins were fitted with similar antipersonnel weapons. In 1998, London's The Independent interviewed well known dolphin expert Doug Cartlidge, who had been invited to the Ukraine to assess the former Soviet dolphin program. At the time, they were struggling and had only four dolphins left, but they showed Cartlidge around their museum and freely shared documents with him. Cartlidge reported that at the height of the Soviet program, their dolphins were also trained to find and mark enemy divers; except their marker contained a CO2 needle that could be remotely triggered, killing the diver if and when the Soviets wanted to. They also employed dolphins as kamikaze torpedos with remotely triggered explosives, and told Cartlidge that as many as 2,000 dolphins had been killed testing and developing this system. But the most bizarre Soviet marine mammal system was a dolphin paratrooper. A dolphin wore a harness attached to a parachute, and could be dropped from heights up to 3,000 meters. How the dolphin was meant to get out of the harness once in the water, or what its task would be, was not reported.
In 2002, the Times of India announced that the Indian Navy had completed preparations to deploy a dolphin-launched limpet mine, citing the dolphin's superior ability to swim long distances in rough water without being detected.
There are, of course, many more such stories to be found, but the most common ones you might run across on the Internet I dismissed for being poorly sourced. If there are classified aspects of the US Navy's MMS, they're classified, and we don't know about them. However a look at what's known to have happened in the past, coupled with decades of improved knowledge about marine mammals and better technology, suggests that today's aquatic animals in the service of Uncle Sam are probably more capable than ever.
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