Underwater espionage: The surprising history of marine mammals and military service
What thoughts would go through your head if you were calmly fishing one morning when all of a sudden you encountered a beluga whale wearing a GoPro? This may sound outlandish, but it happened in Norway earlier this year.
A Norwegian fisherman was not completely taken aback when he was approached by a beluga whale off the coast of Norway, however. The odd thing about this encounter was that when he looked closely at the friendly marine mammal, he discovered a GoPro attached to the animal. His curiosity was further piqued when he found a label attached to the harness of the GoPro that said “Equipment of St. Petersburg.”
Although it was never confirmed, there has been speculation this particular beluga whale was trained by the Russian Navy to collect information.
Currently, humans are living in an era where high tech abounds. Smart devices and drones can be found everywhere and some people frequently wonder if they’re being watched. Although cameras are used to monitor homes, survey land, and even act as tools for surveillance, the unexpected sight of a camera can leave anyone on edge.
In 2017, Russian news sources reported the country was experimenting with beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, and sea lions to guard their naval bases. These animals were trained to assist divers and even ward off or kill strangers who entered the Navy’s designated area.
As crazy as this tale may sound, this is not the first time mammals have been used to help a military operation. There is a longstanding history of militaries in all parts of the world using marine mammals as vehicles for espionage and even combat.
A history of service
Marine mammals are not the only animals who’ve been tapped by military groups. During World War I, the British army trained seagulls and pigeons. In fact, by 1918 the army had 10,000 pigeons trained to carry messages. These birds could travel faster than any other messenger and were able to pass through deadly sniper fire.
Fast forward to World War II, and you’ll find that canines were used to detect mines and explosives. Dogs have a unique sense of smell; one that has proven to be invaluable. This task has fallen upon rats in Africa, who are trained to de-mine fields and have the added advantage of being light enough to avoid triggering the live mine.
All cases of animals being used in the military harness the natural strengths of the animal. To this day, modern warfare still relies on the help of animals. The most prominent initiative is perhaps the use of marine mammals by the Navy.
Marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, are intelligent animals. They are easy to train and are not shy around humans. With the right training from military groups across the globe, these animals have been known to send signals, act as guards, and detect explosive devices that humans simply can’t find safely.
Despite the sudden spike in media coverage about the beluga whale, the strategic use of marine mammals in military operations is not a new concept. While GoPros are a relatively new invention, marine animals have been used as spies using many other devices and ingenious methods.
In the ’60s, the Soviet Union trained marine animals including dolphins, sea lions, beluga whales, and fur seals to search the depths of the ocean for underwater mines.
Another example is the bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions that were trained by the United States Navy as early as 1959. These brave animals would guard against underwater threats, find and retrieve lost equipment, and identify unwelcome visitors.
This program must have been effective, as the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program was kept secret for a long time. The secrecy was largely due to concerns that the public would speculate about the treatment of these animals.
Now that the program is no longer top secret and despite concerns from animal rights activists, it’s important to note the Navy takes good care of these animals. A lot of time and money goes into training them, and it’s ludicrous to think they would be treated poorly risking their health or wellbeing.
The training center is based in San Diego, California and boasts a full staff of veterinarians, veterinarian technicians, and marine biologists that care for the animals on site.
Over the course of the program, the U.S. Navy has tested the capabilities of more than 19 marine mammals. Each animal has possessed different strengths and weaknesses, which are all taken into account when determining which of the animals would be best suited for the job.
Among the main skills that were sought after in choosing the right animal was the ability to see well underwater and perform surveillance. After the completion of the tests, it was determined the bottlenose dolphin and California sea lions were the most valuable.
Functions of intelligent creatures
John Ismay, a former Navy officer and current New York Times reporter, has first-hand knowledge of the value of dolphins to the Navy.
“The Navy uses Atlantic bottlenose dolphins because their bio-sonar is better at certain tasks than any electro-mechanical sonar ever made, and they can repeatedly dive to depths that human divers cannot easily reach,” said Ismay. “Specifically, the Navy uses them to defend high-value ships by quickly locating and marking enemy swimmers who might be trying to attack and also to locate and mark naval mines that are lying on the seafloor or those mines that are buoyant in the water column and moored to the bottom. So really, they are used for their ability to rapidly sweep large areas of water, and then once they have done their job, they are removed from the water so that Navy sailors can finish the job.”
Sea lions, on the other hand, do not have the sonar capabilities. Their strength lies in their eyes, quite literally. They possess an underwater vision that is unmatched by any other marine mammal. This enables them to locate lost equipment faster than any current human technology or diver.
As of this writing, the Navy counts 70 bottlenose dolphins and 30 California sea lions at the Naval base in San Diego. Over the years, these animals have worked for the U.S. Navy to detect underwater mines and other explosives that would expose divers to dangerous pressures and decompression sickness. They have also helped locate and apprehend unauthorized divers or swimmers who attempt to harm the Navy’s vessels, facilities, or people.
“In the case of dealing with enemy swimmers, finishing the job might involve Navy sailors throwing concussion grenades to force the enemy to the surface,” said Ismay. “When dealing with mines, explosive ordnance disposal divers would likely use markers left by the dolphins to dive down to the mines and then either neutralize them or dispose of them with explosives. In either case, the Navy’s dolphins would be long, long, gone by that point and not in danger.”
Specific details of this program, like many other U.S. military initiatives, are largely kept secret. As such, some have gone onto speculate that these mammals are also trained for underwater combat. While this has been the case with military programs in other countries, the United States Navy has stated that these animals are not trained to injure humans and do not carry weapons.
The truth is, these marine mammals have been instrumental in many serious military operations. They were used in the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq to clear mines. Their efforts have protected the U.S. Navy and undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.
While the United States plans to replace these animals with drones and other robots, our current technology is no match for their natural abilities.
“It is certainly possible that technology may advance to the point where these marine mammals are no longer needed, but I do not know if that will happen anytime soon,” Ismay concluded.