Last week, six dolphins took off from their HQ at the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego on a flight to Zagreb, Croatia. Their mission (whether or not they chose to accept it): Find unexploded bombs and shells off the coast of Dubrovnik.
Like diplomats and celebrities, these dolphins travel with a team of experts and handlers – in their case 20 trainers, veterinarians, divers and other support staff. They’re housed in specially constructed swimming pens, guarded by Croatian military police. Their food travels with them, along with a medical lab to monitor their health and welfare round the clock.
All of them were captive born; none have known anything beyond their work for the Navy.
For these dolphins, it’s their second trip to the region. Last year, they were searching the ocean bed 30 miles further down the coast.
Since 1959, dolphins have worked for the Navy around the world – from Alaska to Australia and from Iraq to Vietnam. They are, for sure, well taken care of. But it’s hardly the life of a dolphin in her natural world. According to the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper:
During the three-week mission, which ends Oct. 18, the animals will scour locations of interest in Dubrovnik port and the mile-long inlet between Dubrovnik’s massive city walls, the beach island of Lokrum and the luxury hotels lining the shore. For greater distances, they are transported in special boats on soft rubber stretchers that allow them to slide in and out of the water.
Once in the sea, they will locate and mark potentially dangerous objects, some of which could date to World Wars I and II. Navy divers — along with their colleagues from Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia — will then photograph, identify and dispose of any objects found.
Some insight into the training program comes from Smithsonian magazine in an article about how “The CIA’s Most Highly-Trained Spies Weren’t Even Human.”
One of the pioneers of dolphin training was Bob Bailey. He began during the 1960s, is still doing it, and is described as a cross between Marlin Perkins of Wild Kingdom and the wacky Q of the James Bond movies.
“We never found an animal we could not train,” says Bailey, 76, who in his career has done everything from teaching dolphins to detect submarines to inventing the Bird Brain, an apparatus that enabled a person to play tick-tack-toe against a chicken. “Never.”
Back then, the field of dolphin training and research was largely the domain of psychologists. Bailey realized that their real value would be for the military.
“I could see very quickly where these animals would be really useful, and yet people who were involved, we would joke, wanted to ‘talk to the dolphins.'”
Bailey didn’t just work with dolphins; he trained ravens to fly onto the window ledges of Soviet offices and record conversation, even pick up documents. He wired up cats to be able to follow Chinese voices from room to room, recording what they were saying. He even looked into training bedbugs. (For their part, and with the Cold War in full gear, the Soviets were also training dolphins and other animals. That program now operates under the Ukrainian Navy, whose dolphins are rumored to be armed and dangerous.)
In 1973, 60 Minutes aired a segment on the use of dolphins in the U.S. military. Some of the high/lowlights include:
- An “expert” in dolphin research explaining that these “operating vehicles” (the dolphins, along with whales and sea lions), who make up the “biological weapons system” can travel at “a fuel rate of fifteen pounds of fish a day.”
- The Pentagon’s “Dolphin Czar” voicing his outrage at accusations that the Navy employs “kamikaze porpoises,” dolphins supposedly trained to be suicide-bombers for the US Navy. He is promptly contradicted by:
- A behavioral psychologist with “top secret” Navy clearance, who talks like he’s straight out of Dr. Strangelove, and
- Some young, macho trainer who looks like he’s right off the set of a summer surfing movie, and who claims to be talking in dolphin language to the animals in the training pool. (“Pooka emu-a yump,” he tells them.)
Here’s the full 16-minute segment:
More recently, in 2012, when Iran was threatening to close the Persian Gulf, Admiral Tim Keating, who commanded the U.S. 5th Fleet during the run-up to the Iraq War, told NPR that dolphins were very much part of the Navy’s weaponry:
Keating: They are astounding in their ability to detect underwater objects.
NPR’s Tom Bowman: Dolphins were sent to the Persian Gulf as part of the American invasion force in Iraq.
Keating: I’d rather not talk about whether we used them or not. They were present in theater.
Bowman: But you can’t say whether you used them or not.
Keating: I’d rather not.
The Atlantic Wire discusses this, quoting several other sources:
“Dolphins, which possess sonar so keen they can discern a quarter from a dime when blindfolded and spot a 3-inch metal sphere from 370 feet away, are invaluable minesweepers,” reported The San Francisco Chronicle.
In 2010, the Seattle Times reported that the Navy has 80 bottlenose dolphins in the San Diego Bay alone. They are taught to hunt for mines and drop acoustic transponders nearby.
According to a report in 2003, the dolphins only detect the mines. Destroying them is left up to the Navy’s human divers. Still, the mammals are large enough to detonate a live mine, a prospect that doesn’t delight animal rights groups.
A spokesman for the military’s Space & Naval Warfare Systems Center is quoted as saying that dolphins are naturally reliable and trustworthy animals who seem to enjoy pleasing their human handlers.
It’s all made to sound quite cute and friendly. But the reality is anything but. For starters, at least three dolphins were killed off the coast of San Diego in March, 2010, in what the Navy justified as a “mission critical” operation.
Dolphins aren’t just “invaluable minesweepers”; they are supremely intelligent nonhuman animals with their own lives and their own families. They’re not weapons to be taken off the shelf and trained to be used in our endless human squabbles.
Dolphin expert Dr. Lori Marino describes how military dolphin handlers ensure that the dolphins do what they’re asked and keep coming back:
First, if the dolphins were born in captivity or have been in captivity for a very long time then they are probably afraid of what lies out there in the big unknown ocean.
Second, the navy handlers typically do not bring all of the dolphins out on a mission. The dolphins who go out know that their children or family or friends are still back in captivity. Their priority is to get back to their social group and they would not abandon them. We see this over and over again. Many cetaceans have a level of social togetherness that is unrivaled and that we humans don’t fully understand.
The biggest thing we could learn from dolphins as regards fighting wars is how, thousands of years before human civilization was ever dreamed of, these highly intelligent, social animals learned how to resolve their own differences without going to war with each other.
The dolphins on assignment in Croatia this month will spend their work hours locating and marking potentially dangerous objects. According to Stars and Stripes, some of these may date to World Wars I and II. Once the mines, shells and bombs are located, Navy divers from the U.S., Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia will identify and dispose of them.
And the dolphins will fly home. Mission accomplished. More wars to follow
For more about the use of dolphins in war, go here.