When many people imagine dolphins, they think of sweet, innocent sea mammals that make playful chirping noises and jump through hoops in Sea World shows. But, just like canines, dolphins can serve a purpose for law enforcement as well.
Dating all they way back to the 1960s, the Navy began training dolphins and sea lions to search for sea mines. According to SOFREP, there are five marine mammal systems — a grouping of animals trained for a specific ability. MK 4, MK 7, and MK 8 are dolphin systems; MK 5 is for sea lions; and MK 6 has both sea lions and dolphins.
Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL who authored this piece for SOFREP, describes his own previous experience with military dolphins. He writes that his unit would work often with the marine mammals, although not much was known of what they could do. What divers did know of the dolphins is they didn’t want to get hit by one, according to Webb. He’s not talking of just a little slap though, but something more deadly:
There were always rumors in the UDT/SEAL Teams about the CO2 anti-swimmer cartridges used by the dolphins. The concept is a simple one: dolphin hits an enemy diver with a CO2 dart that injects him with compressed nitrogen, diver has an embolism, and diver is dead. It’s a very efficient and extremely hard to defend against.
I recently phoned two of my former colleagues who are still on active duty and asked them if they could confirm the rumor, and neither could. So I asked myself the question, did the US Navy EVER consider CO2 darts with regards to harbor anti-swimmer defense? I was shocked to find open source evidence that appears to admit that yes, they did.
SOFREP first points to a Wired Danger Room article in 2003 where Marine Mammal Program’s Public Affairs Officer Tom LaPuzza said dolphins were not used as lethal weapons. Digging deeper SOFREP uncovered a couple things. One of them is an old PowerPoint slide that confirms CO2 darts could have been used in the Navy– albeit the slide puts them in the category of “swimmer protection” along with Kevlar suits. This slide does not seem to be associated with the dolphins.
Webb also writes that an anonymous Navy SEAL confirmed a “weaponized dolphin program” was in existence, at least in the 1990s. Here’s what that source told Webb:
We would do several dives a day and try everything to avoid detection, hiding under boats next to the keel, stirring up silt from the bottom, and hiding among pier pilings. Nothing worked to our advantage, the longest time it took one of the dolphins to find and simulate a kill on 7 pairs of divers was within minutes.
The dolphins would have their simulated CO2 system attached to their nose, they would then ram us in the chest cavity to simulate the injection. The dolphins could kill just with this force alone but the idea was to recover the bodies and any intelligence.
I actually saw one of the heavy gauge needles that attaches to their nose along with the harness and CO2 containers that were positioned just behind the head. They’re incredibly smart mammals and not pleasant to dive against.
The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program explicitly denies this on its website though. In a FAQ section, the Navy states it “does not now train, nor has it ever trained, its marine mammals to harm or injure humans in any fashion or to carry weapons to destroy ships.” Some of its reasoning for not weaponizing dolphins, it states, is their inability to tell friend from foe. It says the animals are trained more simply to “detect, locate, and mark all mines or all swimmers in an area or interest or concern.
Read more details of SOFREP’s perspective on the program here.