National Geographic News
K-Dog, a Bottle Nose Dolphin, leaps out of the water in front of Sgt. Andrew Garrett while training near the USS Gunston Hall in the Arabian Gulf.

A trained bottlenose dolphin named K-Dog leaps out of the water during a training exercise in the Persian Gulf.


Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published March 28, 2014

Russian activities in Crimea now include taking over a Ukrainian military unit made up of bottlenose dolphins, according to news reports.

It's unclear how the Russian navy intends to use these "combat dolphins," although state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports that the mammals will be getting equipment upgrades.

Using marine mammals like dolphins, whales, or sea lions for military purposes isn't new. Nor is it restricted to the Ukrainian or Russian navies—the U.S. Navy has had a similar program since the 1960s. The ability of these animals to detect and find targets at depth or in murky water is something technology can't duplicate yet, but which militaries find very valuable.

The Sevastopol-based "combat dolphins" are trained to search for and tag underwater mines or unwanted divers or swimmers attempting to access restricted waterways, says RIA Novosti.

The U.S. Navy trains its marine mammals—including California sea lions and bottlenose dolphins—to find and retrieve equipment lost at sea and to identify intruders swimming into restricted areas. The dolphins are also used to detect underwater mines, either buried in the seafloor or floating from an anchor.

Beluga marking a training target.
A beluga whale marks a training target.

Nothing Like the Real Thing

"[Bottlenose dolphins] are better than any machine as far as detecting mines," says Paul Nachtigall, head of the marine mammal research program at the University of Hawaii in Kane'ohe Bay. They can also do it much faster than a machine can.

Dolphins can be especially effective close to shore, where crashing surf and ship traffic generate a lot of noise, Nachtigall says. Mechanical systems can be overwhelmed by all the competing signals, but not dolphins.

It's because their sonar is so finely tuned, he explains. Dolphins, and relatives like killer whales, send out a series of sounds that bounce off of objects in the surrounding environment. The mammals pick up the return echoes and form an acoustic picture of their environment, an ability known as echolocation.

Experiments Nachtigall conducted in the mid-1990s with a resident bottlenose dolphin named BJ demonstrated this sensitive ability. Nachtigall asked BJ to distinguish between metal cylinders made of either stainless steel, brass, or aluminum. Even though he buried the four-inch-long (ten-centimeter-long) objects under two feet (0.61 meters) of mud, BJ passed with flying colors.

Researchers still don't know how dolphins do this, Nachtigall says. But it's a topic that has captured the attention of military and civilian scientists for decades.

Out of Place

California sea lions, while they don't possess sonar capabilities, have excellent eyesight. "They're really good at finding things that are out of place," such as lost equipment, says Nachtigall.

The U.S. Navy uses them to find and retrieve unarmed test ordnance like practice mines. Handlers give a sea lion an attachment system it can hold in its mouth and send the mammal overboard. Once the animal finds its target, it clamps the device to it and handlers in a boat at the surface can bring the object in.

A 2011 media demonstration in San Diego Bay, California, featured a former U.S. Navy SEAL attempting to infiltrate the harbor with an unarmed mine. The Navy deployed dolphins and sea lions to patrol the area, and both caught the diver on every one of his five attempts. The sea lion even managed to attach a clamp to the diver's leg, and handlers on the surface reeled him in like a fish.

Both California sea lions and bottlenose dolphins are fairly hardy, smart, and very trainable, says Nachtigall. Sea lions also have the advantage of being amphibious. That's why the U.S. Navy ended up using them instead of other marine mammals like false killer whales or belugas, which they also initially looked at. (See "Dolphins Have Longest Memories in Animal Kingdom.")

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

Willem Cousineau
Willem Cousineau

I am pretty sure that the army would do just fine without these dolphins and sea lions. Besides from the immorality of it all, I find it very intriguing that the animals can do that.

Lyle Babi
Lyle Babi

Why is our military using the dolphin's to find the plane Black box let's some of money we spent on all that research . " think out of Box "  help those families out Now

Lyle Babi
Lyle Babi

Why is our military using the dolphin's to find the plane Black box let's some of money we spent on all that research . " think out of Box  help those families out Now

Fazilay Raza
Fazilay Raza

Mankind leave the sea animals alone already the land animals most of them are facing extinction

n k
n k

They will use these on suicide missions to deliver ordnance. That's the "killer" app for these creatures.

Daniel Mitra
Daniel Mitra

Really interesting, kinda thinking what will they do with animals next. We still dont know what some of them exactly do, how they do it and that stuff. Reminds me of England trying to make spies of birds. Only thing is that it isnt easy to learn them to do spy-things, and even if, they fail miserably :D. Nice way to find out what can animals like these do.

Gail Sharp
Gail Sharp

What depth can they dive to? Could they find the black box for the missing Malaysian plane?

Ste Schlappi
Ste Schlappi

Please let me be the first to say it. I think this is a very excellent idea. The mammals are not being harmed, they are doing work that a person can not do as well, and they are helping to defend our country. The canned answers of these other people are what is "disgusting". If someone said your child was down there somewhere, and only one of these  mammals has the ability to rescue her, I'm betting you would jump on the idea. What a bunch of self-righteous people we can be.

Jeanie Paver
Jeanie Paver

Yet, the Navy continues to blast them in the wild with sonar!

Miles Monroe
Miles Monroe

This is just one very short step up the morality scale from child soldiers.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Gail Sharp  The deepest diving marine mammal so far is the Cuvier's beaked whale, which can dive to nearly 10,000 feet deep. According to a review paper in 2011, bottlenose dolphins can dive to a max of 1,279 feet while California sea lions can dive to a max depth of 899 feet.

I think the depths search efforts are confronting with the Malaysian plane are beyond the capabilities of bottlenose dolphins and CA sea lions.

Dan Cunningham
Dan Cunningham

@Ste Schlappi  i agree, if this type of thing can help prevent larger escalation of military operations through covert actions, or can help identify mines to protect lives, or quickly and easily retrieve lost items without risking human lives then that is a good thing.  Also think of the humanitarian applications that this training could be applied for. It's easy to sit there and villainize these actions but I don't think it that simple. We have been using animals for utilitarian proposes for 1000's of years, this really isn't much different. 

Radu Petrovici
Radu Petrovici

@Ste Schlappi  you, my friend, do not deserve a reply to this. you deserve to get drafted , sent to "defend" your country and never return.

Ste Schlappi
Ste Schlappi

@Radu Petrovici  Already did do the defending part. I came back. You people who hate people so much should find a way to end your part of the problem.


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