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Remember the Dr. Evil line from the first Austin Powers film about “sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads”? It seems like a ridiculous weapon that only a maniacal supervillain could devise. After all, who else would take the time to catch, train, and arm marine animals to autonomously defeat enemies? Well, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, because various military forces around the world have actually been training war dolphins since the 1960s.
War dolphins, also called military dolphins, have been used for a wide range of porpoises (sorry, we couldn't resist). Some of these highly-intelligent mammals have been trained by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program for search and rescue, locating swimmers lost in the ocean, similar to the military and police canines used on land. Others have been taught more complex tasks, like detecting underwater mines via their natural echolocation capabilities, a skill which was used during the Iraq War.
There are even some allegations that suggest these dolphins may have been trained to kill swimmers, or destroy submarines. Former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb wrote that he underwent training to deal with enemy combat dolphins. Trainers in this exercise used dolphins “to track down enemy divers, outfitting them with a device strapped onto the head that contains a [simulated] compressed gas needle. Once the dolphin has tracked you down, it butts you; the needle shoots out and pokes you, creating an embolism. Within moments, you're dead.”
The New York Times once reported that dolphins were taught to kill enemy divers with nose-mounted guns and explosives, according to former Navy dolphin trainers. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program vehemently denies these claims, stating “The Navy does not now train, nor has it ever trained, its marine mammals to harm or injure humans in any fashion or to carry weapons to destroy ships.”
However, the Soviet Union is also known to have worked on its own military dolphin program, which may have had different standards. The Soviet dolphin program started in 1965, and was based in Sevastopol, close to the now-contested Crimea region. After the fall of the USSR, the program passed to Ukrainian leadership, and the animals were eventually sold to Iran in 2000. In 2014, Russia reinstated the military dolphin program, and just this year allegations surfaced that the program was looking for new dolphin recruits.
According to Doug Cartlidge, a former dolphin trainer who visited the Crimea dolphin facility, the animals “were sometimes armed with needles connected to carbon dioxide cylinders, a poke from which could be lethal.” Cartlidge even said that “they’d learned to parachute out of helicopters.”
So, next time you're thinking about improvised weapons, just remember that war dolphins exist. Although some of these cetaceans' combat abilities may be the stuff of myth and legend, they show that thinking outside the box can produce some surprisingly effective tools for warfare.