Concerned about the threat from Ukrainian scuba-diving saboteurs at the Black Sea Fleet’s main base in Sevastopol harbour, Russia is stepping up security by reinforcing the number of dolphin guards trained to detect and counter any underwater incursion.
According to an update issued on 23 June by the UK’s Defence Intelligence agency, the Russian navy has invested in major enhancements to the security of its Black Sea base in occupied Crimea since summer 2022, but in recent weeks has ramped up its precautions in the face of Ukraine’s looming counter-offensive.
The agency has aerial photographs of the base that indicate a near-doubling of floating mammal pens considered “highly likely” to contain trained bottlenose dolphins. The enhanced defences also include at least four layers of nets and booms across the harbour entrance.
In Arctic waters, the Russian navy is also known to use beluga whales and seals for military purposes. It trains marine mammals for a range of missions besides countering enemy divers.
Ukraine’s counter-offensive has already targeted infrastructure near Crimea in pursuit of its objective of returning all Russian-occupied land to its control. The Black Sea Fleet would be a primary target for Ukrainian special forces or drone assaults.
The Soviet Union made use of trained mammals based at Sevastopol until its collapse in 1991 and the programme was continued on a low-key basis by the Ukrainian navy. It was then stepped up by Russia after it occupied Crimea in 2014, with trained dolphins deployed at Tartus in Syria the following year.
The practice of conscripting marine mammals into the military is not unique to Russia – the US Navy has been training dolphins and sea-lions “as teammates for our sailors and marines” since 1959 and deploying them since the Vietnam War. Its marine-mammal programme to guard against underwater threats is based on the Pacific coast at the Point Loma military base in San Diego.
The USA has always denied training dolphins to kill, and some experts describe “dolphin soldiers” as too unreliable. However, naval historian Prof Andrew Lambert of King's College London has said that because dolphins are so well adapted to hunting under water they “would be ideal for killing human divers… fast, clever and powerful… any diver in the harbour at night would be a target.”