This is how marine mammals are used for secret warfare missions

05 June, 2023

A white whale has been branded a Russian spy. If that is true, only Russia knows.

But there is a long history of using marine mammals for military missions around the world – as mine detectors, sentries and submarine hunters.

White whale Hvaldimir has been accused of being a Russian spy. Archive image. Photo: Jorgen Ree Wiig/AP/TT. Archive image.

Since 2019, he has made headlines and now he has appeared on the coast of Sweden. When the white whale Hvaldimir was first discovered, he had a camera harness marked “property of St. Petersburg” on him and behaved like an animal trained by man.

Whether Hvaldimir has been trained to spy on behalf of Russia or not, there is a long tradition of recruiting marine mammals for military service around the world.

– I don’t know more than anyone else, but it is absolutely possible that the whales have been trained by Russians, says Gervase Phillips, a historian at Manchester Metropolitan University who has studied the military use of animals, to TT.

Armed forces have a long history of exploiting marine mammals. The Soviet Union had a fairly advanced training program, which is believed to have included beluga whales.

Zak the sea lion on a training mission with the US Navy at an undisclosed location. Zak has been trained to detect suspicious people moving in water near ports, ships and other important military locations. Photo; Brien Aho Us Navy/AP/TT. Archive image.

Looking for mines

There is, of course, a certain amount of secrecy surrounding exactly how militaries use naval auxiliaries. But the US Navy has been training dolphins and sea lions since 1959 to help Marines and sailors protect themselves against threats below the surface. It can be about looking for mines or chasing away suspected attackers.

– Stories have abounded of “battle dolphins” with knives attached to their snouts. But it has been denied from the US and it would also be very risky and unpredictable, says Phillips.

However, dolphins can be used as watchdogs in the sea, they can sound the alarm about intrusions by hostile divers who are looking to sabotage or attack ships.

An employee of the Sevastopol State Oceanarium trains a dolphin. The picture is from March 2014. Photo; Pavel Golovkin AP/TT

Satellite images

Last year, US satellite images showed pods of dolphins at the entrance to the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea. The Soviet Navy ran a dolphin program near Sevastopol during the Cold War, but the unit passed to the Ukrainian military when the Soviet Union collapsed – only to fall back into Russian hands with the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The dolphin traps may be a hoax, a way to try to stop Ukrainian divers from entering the port. Or the training program is in full swing again, says Phillips.

During the Second World War there was also a top-secret training facility for seals on Gålö in the Stockholm archipelago. About 20 gray seals were trained to be deployed as mine detectors or submarine hunters, but the project was terminated after a few years.

US Sergeant Andrew Garrett with bottlenose dolphin K-Dog on a training mission in the Persian Gulf in 2003. Dolphins, horses, dogs and even chickens were used in one way or another during the Iraq War. Photo: Brien Aho/US Navy/AP/TT. Archive image.


Many kinds of animals have been important assets in man’s wars and conflicts, from the horses of the World Wars to today’s highly professionalized search dogs. When it comes to sea creatures, the dolphin was one of the first cetaceans to start training, according to Andreas Fahlman, animal physiologist and head of research at Kolmården Zoo.

– Dolphins are very good at searching for things that are difficult to see in cloudy or dark seas. They are also very fast and can turn a dime, he says.

Sea lions have other abilities. They can tow or salvage objects or maybe put a line on a diver and pull it to the surface if it tries to sabotage something in a port or naval base.

TT: Are dolphins superior to technological alternatives?

– Many times, in half an hour, dolphins can find lost objects that automated robots have failed to track for several days, says Fahlman.

– The dolphin’s sonar is far superior to our technology. That may change, but for now it seems that nature and evolution are still in charge.

Andreas Fahlman, head of research at Kolmården Zoo. Photo; Esmeralda Edenberg/Handout. Archive image.

In 2019, previously classified files describing tests carried out by the US intelligence service CIA on cats, dogs, dolphins and birds such as ravens, pigeons, hawks, owls and crows were made public. The spy agency believed that the animals could perform “unique” missions within the framework of the agency’s covert operations, primarily directed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Among other things, cats were considered as living listening devices and electronic implants were operated into the brains of dogs to see if they could be remotely controlled.

However, none of these programs went very far. Most efforts were made to train dolphins as potential saboteurs and to aid in spying on the Soviet Union’s development of a nuclear submarine fleet.

In the “Oxygas” and “Chirilogy” projects, it was investigated whether dolphins could replace human divers and place explosives on ships, sneak into Soviet ports or swim next to submarines to gather information. The programs were later passed on to the US Navy.

Source: AFP

Text: Sofia Eriksson/TT
Foto: Jorgen Ree Wiig/AP/TT, Brien Aho/US Navy/AP/TT, Pavel Golovkin/AP/TT, Esmeralda Edenberg

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