Trained bottlenose dolphins are being used to protect the Russian Navy’s Black Sea naval base from underwater saboteurs during the invasion of Ukraine, according to satellite photography revealed by the US Naval Institute.
As the Russian invasion was getting underway in February, its navy placed two dolphin pens inside a sea-wall at the entrance to Sevastopol harbour in Crimea, say USNI analysts.
The conscripted dolphins are believed to be tasked with conducting counter-diver operations – preventing Ukrainian special-operations personnel infiltrating the harbour to sabotage Russian warships. Satellite photography has revealed that many such high-value vessels are docked in the harbour, which lies beyond the range of Ukrainian missiles, says the USNI.
Dolphin training for military action was originally developed by the Soviet Union in the Black Sea during the Cold War years. Centred on Sevastopol, the unit fell into disuse under Ukrainian control following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, but when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 it was revived and returned to operational service with the navy.
In 2018, Black Sea Fleet dolphins were deployed for several months to Russia’s Mediterranean Sea naval base in Tartus to support its military operations in Syria – again revealed by satellite images of newly installed sea-pens. Dolphins are widely considered to offer an effective defence against scuba divers, says the USNI.
Another marine-mammal unit forms part of the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet, where better-insulated beluga whales and seals are preferred to dolphins for the cold operational conditions. Belugas are also known to be housed at Olenya Gubi, the base of Russia’s undersea military intelligence agency GUGI.
In 2019 a beluga whale turned up in northern Norway wearing a harness, camera-mount and clips marked “Equipment St Petersburg”, indicating that it was a probable fugitive from the Russian Navy programme.