Fifty years ago, Hollywood released a curious 1973 film The day of the dolphin. The plot centered on a marine biologist who “unwittingly … trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States,” according to one advertising tagline.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about the film, an extraordinary sci-fi thriller typical of the era. Regardless, the film struck a chord with conspiracy buffs, who for more than a decade before the film’s release were already spinning compelling theories that happy, intelligent, innocent dolphins could be remade into ruthless killers.
Over the years, theorists have further speculated (with varying degrees of consistency and evidence) that the US already has trained pods of dolphins. Their mission: to kill enemy divers, plant mines on the hulls of enemy ships, and generally wreak marine havoc with just the flick of a flipper.
In the 1970s, it should have been easy for the U.S. Navy to dismiss such rumors, but there was just one small problem: As part of a secret program dating back to the height of the Cold War, the Navy actually it was training dolphins and other marine mammals for military purposes.
In fact, they still are.
Send in the Dolphins!
It was not until the 1990s, when the program was declassified, that naval sources were finally able to acknowledge the existence of US Navy Marine Mammal Program. Established in 1959, the program initially attempted to train a variety of animals, including sea turtles, seabirds and mammals, and even sharks.
The current program focuses on bottlenose dolphins as well as California sea lions, which assist Navy and Marine personnel in underwater reconnaissance and defense. Over the decades, the program’s marine mammals have been used to serve in areas of operation ranging from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf.
Bottlenose dolphin training in the Navy’s marine mammal program. No, it is not a weapon on his fin; it is simply a tracking device that allows the dolphin’s handler to track it. (Credit: PH1 Brien Aho/US Navy Photo)
Dolphins are a natural choice to serve as aquatic guard dogs given their prominence intelligence and amenability to learning. What’s more, their superior underwater senses—including natural sonar that human technology can’t currently hope for—make dolphins the perfect operatives to search for and identify threats, such as mines or other dangerous submerged objects.
“Both dolphins and sea lions also assist security personnel in detecting and apprehending unauthorized swimmers and divers,” according to the program’s website. The Navy is also quick to note that its program has yielded a wealth of scientific research, totaling more than 1,200 studies.
Always under the scrutiny of animal rights activists and a compassionate public like the Navy really wants you to understand is that their dolphins are benevolent peacekeepers and sentinels who also contribute to wider scientific knowledge. What are these military mammals do not The Navy seeks to highlight, attack, or kill potential combatants.
Read more: How intelligent are dolphins?
The degree of engagement of animals with potential enemies, officials say, does not exceed location tagging of suspicious swimmers, then withdraw to let human counterparts handle an actual confrontation.
Also, the Navy claims that dolphins would make terrible killers. It is said that dolphins, although highly intelligent, lack the ability and temperament to follow an order to kill. Even if they could being trained for a deadly mission, it is claimed that a dolphin commando will struggle to distinguish friend from foe, posing a risk to their own people, handlers and trainers.
But that doesn’t mean trainers haven’t tried anyway.
Deadly dolphins, fatal fins
Although generally not belligerent, dolphins i can attack if the situation calls for it. When threatened by sharks, for example, dolphins have been known to deliver devastating blows with their heads or snouts. Such protection may be a last resort in nature, but a military trainer is said to be able to get a dolphin to neutralize an enemy diver using the creature’s natural defensive abilities combined with some kind of weapon.
In fact, some former trainers in the US program disputed the Navy’s official position on the dolphins being used only for defense. IN New York Times report in 1990, two former trainers claimed that dolphins in the US program in the 1980s were trained to hit enemy divers with “swimmer override devices” that could fire a bullet. (Sources admitted that the training was largely a failure—instead of practicing their kill-shot, the dolphins tended to either swim away or snuggle up gently to the divers. Aww.)
Another NMMP dolphin places a tagging device near a sea mine dummy during training. (Credit: US Navy Photo)
Meanwhile, other military powers may indeed have been able to give their dolphins a license to kill.
As would be expected of any US military project with Cold War origins, the former Soviet Union also developed its own dolphin program. Over the years, stories claims emerged that some dolphins in the Soviet Navy wore weapon belts allowing them to attack human opponents with terrifying harpoons, embolism-inducing needles, or devastating poison darts. One swift blow from a sleek attacking dolphin and a clumsy human intruder would die, thrashing about in a panicked, seething frenzy.
While the full extent of the Soviet program is unknown, evidence suggests that it is still active in some form. As early as last spring, satellite images indicated that the Russian Navy had deployed dolphin teams during the invasion of Ukraine, apparently to protect a naval base in the Black Sea. Some sources suggest that their dolphins are more than guards and may have offensive abilities.
The US and Russia aren’t the only ones known to have deadly games with dolphins. After the collapse of the Soviet Union BBC reported that some animals from the old USSR program were sold to Iran, which may have continued to develop the dolphins as living weapons. Even more recently, the Hamas navy claimed that Israel was arming dolphins – armed with spear harnesses – against them. Although the alleged evidence of Hamas’ dolphin attacks was leaked to the media at the time, the narrative has since been widely circulated ridiculed.
Still, it could be the basis for a great movie if Hollywood ever gets around to it The day of the dolphin is for a remake.