Day 6

Underwater soldiers: The history of military dolphins, from the Cold War to now

Last week, the Russian state department issued an unusual request: a call to recruit five dolphins. But this isn't the first time Russia has trained a military dolphin unit. Both Russia and the U.S. have been using military dolphins since the Cold War. Science historian Graham Burnett dives into the history of military dolphins.

This month, the Russian state department issued a call for five dolphins, between the ages of three and five years old, with perfect teeth and no physical impairments.

Day 6 guest host Laura Lynch and science historian Graham Burnett dive into the history of military dolphins to separate fact from myth.

Science historian Graham Burnett speaking.

Both Russia and the U.S. have been using military dolphins since the Cold War. They are regularly used to detect submarines and underwater mines. But there have also been rumours of other, more controversial assignments for the marine mammals — including spying and even combat.

This U.S navy documentary looks at the Marine Mammal Program: 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Laura Lynch: Are you surprised to find out that the Russian military has put out a tender for five healthy dolphins?

Graham Burnett: Well, not as surprised as I might have been if I hadn't done some research on this question over the last decade. It turns out there's a pretty significant history, in the second half of the twentieth century, of attempting to use dolphins and other marine mammals as military animals.

LL: And why would any military want to recruit dolphins?

GB: Well, let's put it this way. When some navy guys in the 1950s got up next to a tank holding some captive Tursiops Truncatus — bottlenose dolphins, those friendly SeaWorld creatures — and realize that they had sonar capacities that could let them discern a wooden nickel from a real nickel at 15 feet in muddy water in the middle of the night, those navy guys who worked on sonar systems got pretty interested.

LL: What kind of assignments are they, and were they, getting?

GB: Well, the first work was to figure out whether it was possible to train the animals. And then to get them to work in the open water with navy divers, and to use their sonar systems to scan for objects that the navy wanted to recover off the bottom. And there were even rumoured efforts to train the dolphins to run intercept —  to take out Vietcong sappers in Cameron Bay — in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War.

LL: Rumours.

GB: Yeah. There's no question that the navy has had, for quite some time, dolphins and other marine mammals operationalized for support. Whether any of those animals was ever weaponized has been a vexed question. And there are those who who want to suggest that there were dolphins that were trained — literally with a hypodermic needle, a syringe blowing compressed air, mounted on a muzzle — to swim up to a diver underwater and poke that diver. And bring him to the surface and take him out at the same time.

Personally, I actually don't believe any such system was operationalized. But it wouldn't surprise me, on the basis of the archival research I did, to discover that such things were experimented with or planned. During the Cold War, the military-industrial complex thought about just about everything.

LL: But why use dolphins rather than humans or even machines underwater?

GB: Well, there were no machines in that period — and frankly, I'm not sure whether there even are such machines now— that could discern as finely underwater as dolphins could do using their natural sonar systems.

LL: You talked a little bit earlier about the navy men coming across this tank of dolphins. Can you tell me a little bit more about how the U.S. navy first became interested in dolphins?

GB: Dolphins were kept for the first time in captivity in the United States in the post-war period at Marine Studios. Which was basically like a sound stage for B movies. At any rate, they had a bunch of marine mammals that they used as extras in underwater scenes. And these were the foundation institutions for what becomes SeaWorld, and Marine World, and so forth.

And there was a set of scientists who began doing research work on the animals in the late 1950s. And it was a group of navy scientists who first started to work with dolphins, trying to figure out if their skin or swimming motions could teach navy folk something about how to redesign torpedoes. So it was actually hydrodynamics initially. And subsequently they got interested in their sonar and in their communicative capabilities.

LL: Who was John Cunningham Lilly?

GB: Lilly was one of those scientists, a brain scientist by training who worked at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland. And he was one of those guys who ended up down in Florida. And he took one look at the brain of a Tursiops Truncatus, a bottlenose dolphin. And he thought to himself, 'These things just might be as intelligent — maybe even more intelligent — than human beings.'

And he had some friends in the military. He was friends with a guy named William B. McLean, who developed the Sidewinder missile. And they kind of got into cahoots to begin a research program into dolphins for use in the military.

LL: He used some unusual experiments to try to get inside the head of a dolphin, so to speak. Can you tell me about that?

GB: Yeah, he's a fascinating character. Lilly was one of those Cold War scientists who, across the 1960s, went from a kind of pocket protector-wearing engineer-type guy to a tuned-in, turned-on and dropped out avatar of the counterculture. And the dolphins are part of that.

He initially tried getting through the dolphins by hammering electrodes into their brains and giving them little shocks to do neuroanatomy and neurophysiology research. But by the end, he was actually lying in a flotation tank, connected up by stereophonic headphones to the sounds that the dolphins were making and even experimenting with L.S.D. — both on himself and on the dolphins — in an effort to kind of get everybody into the same mood or space for improved communication.

By that point, it should be said, the navy had dropped him like a hot rock. But the navy had gone its own way with their research program that did not involve L.S.D. or long hair or flotation tanks.

LL: We've been talking about the Cold War. That's when the military use of dolphins reached its peak?

GB: That's a little hard to assess, because as a result of increasingly aggressive protests by animal rights activists, the navy's marine mammal program kind of went underground. I'm not exactly sure of the year, but it must be in the early 1970s.

LL: But it is still alive today, is it not?

GB: Yes, that's my understanding. And the Soviets, back in the day, had a program that mirrored the U.S. program to a considerable degree. It wouldn't surprise me at all to discover that that project had continued on into the post-Soviet Union period.

LL: Well, based on the Russians' call, it looks like we're about to see more dolphins deployed into the ocean. Thank you for telling us about it; it's really interesting.

GB: A pleasure to talk with you, Laura. Take care.