How Militarized Did the U.S. Navy Make Their Dolphins?

Navy trained dolphins, such as the one pictured here wearing a locating pinger, performed mine clearance work in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq War.
(Image: U.S. Navy)
Navy trained dolphins, such as the one pictured here wearing a locating pinger, performed mine clearance work in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq War. (Image: U.S. Navy)

It seems like canines aren’t the only animals that can a land job with the military. The U.S. military has for years trained bottlenose dolphins to carry out military tasks, from locating underwater mines to finding the presence of enemy swimmers.

At the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (or SPAWAR) in San Diego, California, the Navy has 85 dolphins and 50 sea lions.

See some footage of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program “Dolphin 2013” in Croatia:

According to NBC, the program first started in 1960 when the Navy studied Notty, a female Pacific white-sided dolphin. The Navy hoped to study the dolphin’s biomechanics and then use its findings for developing faster torpedoes, but the focus changed to covert training.

Military researchers soon realized that dolphins themselves could be a battlefield asset.

“It was soon after discovered that they had excellent biological sonar, so they definitely did a lot of research on that as well,” Ed Budzyna, a spokesman for SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific, told Business Insider.

Below is the 30-minute documentary The Dolphins That Joined the Navy, from 1964:

Dolphins have seen action in the Vietnam War, Bahrain, the Persian Gulf in 2003, and they even helped provide security for the Republican National Convention of 1996, which took place at the waterside San Diego Convention Center.

Deadly dolphins?

According to one persistent rumor about the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, it is training dolphins to kill.

Brandon Webb, in his memoir on life as a Navy SEAL, writes about a training exercise in San Diego about evading enemy military divers. The trainers used the mammals “to track down enemy divers, outfitting them with a device strapped onto the head that contains a [simulated] compressed gas needle,” Webb writes. “Once the dolphin has tracked you down, it butts you; the needle shoots out and pokes you, creating an embolism. Within moments, you would be dead.”

SPAWAR’s frequently asked questions page denies ever training dolphins “to harm or injure humans in any fashion, or to carry weapons to destroy ships.”

But in 1990, The New York Times reported that former Navy trainers had told them dolphins were being taught “to kill enemy divers with nose-mounted guns and explosives.”

This charge has also been denied by a Navy spokesman.

Personnel attending four dolphins during a flight aboard a C-17 Globemaster III. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cohen A. Young/Released)

Personnel attending four dolphins during a flight aboard a C-17 Globemaster III. (Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cohen A. Young/Released)

The U.S. isn’t alone in training military dolphins. Starting in 1965, the Soviet Union had tried to at a Black Sea port near Sevastopol, in Crimea.

When the USSR collapsed, “ownership was transferred to Ukraine, where it was kept afloat by switching to civilian tasks like working with disabled children,” according to a Russian news agency, reported by Wired ( the collapse of the Soviet Union had also led to the U.S.’s downsizing its own program). But apparently those dolphins were based in Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow last year, so now they’re under Russian military control.

Last year, Russian media and others reported that the U.S. was sending some of its dolphins to Ukraine in response to the ongoing crisis there with Russia, a claim that the U.S. adamantly denied.

See a news report about that below:

In 2010, the Navy sent dolphins to Washington state, according to Navy spokesman Chris Haley. Dolphins are still used there now as “part of our security force,” Haley told Business Insider.

Thankfully for the dolphins, the Navy is planning to faze them out by 2017. The Navy now has a robotic system to take over their jobs.

But it seems nothing is safe from our wars, even animals that have nothing to do with why we would be at war in the first place. At least the Navy is planning to phase them out.

For more about why the Navy is phasing out their use of dolphins, see below:

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