Hamas this week released a video claiming that one of their swimmers was killed by an Israeli military dolphin off the Gaza strip, and showing what they say is a weapon recovered in the encounter. This may seem as ridiculous as the vulture detained by Lebanon in 2016 on suspicion of spying for Israel, but the uncomfortable truth is the military have long trained dolphins for their own uses. And while dolphins may seem cuddly, they are naturally efficient killers, and Hamas’ claim chimes with previous accounts.
The U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal program dates back to the 1960s. Their ability to swim deeper and faster than scuba divers made dolphins valuable for marking or retrieving items from the sea bed, and mammals were also trained to deal with waterborne intruders.
“Both dolphins and sea lions also assist security personnel in detecting and apprehending unauthorized swimmers and divers that might attempt to harm the Navy’s people, vessels, or harbor facilities,” according to the Navy’s official page
For example, the Shallow Water Intruder Detection System is essentially a trained sea lion carrying a spring-loaded D-clamp on a line. The sea lion approaches a swimmer from behind, attaches the clamp to their leg and swims off. In exercises, swimmers never even saw the sea lion before they felt themselves being reeled in like a fish by the security team.
The Mark 6 Mod 1 MMS (Marine Mammal System) is a dolphin trained to find and tag enemy swimmers. When the dolphin locates an intruder, it comes back to its handler’s boat and rings a bell. The trainer places a conical marker buoy over the dolphin’s snout which the dolphin uses to ‘tag’ the swimmer: the buoy floats to the surface, flashing a strobe light to mark the location for security team.
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However, the U.S. Navy has long denied that its dolphins have ever been used as weapons.
“The Navy 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,” according to an official statement.
Rumors and leaks about a Navy ‘swimmer nullification program’ suggest otherwise.
In his memoir of life as a Navy SEAL, Brandon Webb recalls training to evade enemy combat dolphins. Trainers in this exercise used dolphins “to track down enemy divers, outfitting them with a device strapped onto the head that contains a [simulated] compressed gas needle. Once the dolphin has tracked you down, it butts you; the needle shoots out and pokes you, creating an embolism. Within moments, you’re dead.”
Michael Greenwood, a former Navy dolphin trainer, described armed attack dolphins with “large hypodermic syringes loaded with pressurized carbon dioxide” which would cause enemy divers to literally blow up.
When cetacean expert Doug Cartlidge, visited the Russian facility in Sevastopol to advise on dolphin care after the military program was wound down, he found that some had been trained to attack swimmers wearing a harness fitted with a hollow needle attached to a 2000 psi CO2 cylinder. The Russian program appears to have copied the U.S. version.
The weapon chosen looks like a version of the Shark Dart developed by Farallon for the U.S. navy in the 1970s. The commonest version resembles a slim dagger, with a CO2 cartridge in the handle and a long hollow needle for a blade. The idea was to stab the shark, injecting high-pressure gas into its body. The idea was that this would not kill it but would affect its buoyancy, forcing it to break off the attack without leaving much blood in the water, though in practice the effects could be more gruesome with stories of internal organs being forced out. (No longer sold, the Shark Dart was reinvented years later as the underwater Wasp Knife)
Ramming is dolphins’ natural means of defense, and it is highly effective: even sharks fear them. Dolphins are agile and move at high speed, using their bony snout as a weapon. A dolphin can easily outmaneuver a shark and ram its soft underside, causing severe internal damage or killing it. While dolphins could be trained to attack human swimmers in this way, this creates a potential risk as the dolphin might attack trainers and would be like a loaded gun whenever it shared water with humans. Training the dolphin to use a device gives far more control, as the dolphins are only dangerous when armed with a live weapon.
The Shark Dart is triggered by a light tap, so training dolphins to use one is safer than a spear or other weapon which might engage the dolphin’s ramming instincts. And because it is quiet, it would not disrupt the dolphin’s sensitive hearing like the diver’s preferred anti-shark device — a ‘bang stick’ or powerhead (a magnum cartridge on a pole).
The hardware shown by Hamas is very much the right configuration to be a harness for exactly this type of weapon – see image from CovertShores of how it would look on a dolphin.
And it turns out the IDF does have history of using animals. The Center for Applied Animal Behavior for Security Purposes at Tel Aviv University is best known is known for its work with sniffer dogs, but has also worked with other types of animal, apparently including dolphins.
As with any claim from Hamas, the latest video should be treated with caution. But we do know that the IDF has had problems with Hamas divers before, putting up underwater barriers to keep them out, and deploying special sonar to successfully intercept scuba divers involved in terrorist attacks.
Nature has equipped dolphins as superb underwater guard dogs, and it would hardly be surprising if the IDF chose to use them in that role — however much we might want to see them as lovable aquatic acrobats rather than killers.