The Russian army would use dolphins… but why?

Does Flipper have the makings of a Robocop? Oum was he an undercover spy? The comparison lends to smile and yet. Satellite images of the Black Sea revealed by several American media, including NBC News​, report in the port of Sevastopol, in Crimea, a dolphin enclosure. After the discovery, in April 2019, by Norwegian fishermen of a beluga wearing a harness stamped “Equipment of St Petersburg”, the hypothesis of the use of marine animals by the Russian army for military purposes strengthens.

If there is one point on which the experts are unanimous, it is that the dolphin has nothing to envy to James Bond at the intellectual level. “He has very complex cognitive and learning abilities. We can make him learn a very large number of exercises,” explains Fabienne Delfour, ethologist and cetologist. These animals can memorize a lot of information and know how to recognize shapes, structures and react accordingly. “Like all mammals, they are able to generalize and categorise. So if you teach them to recognize, for example, a metal panel, they will know what to do, alert them or not”, specifies the researcher. Thus, if the divers in his camp all wear a known distinctive sign of the cetacean, he will know whether the individual he is spotting is an intruder or not. Same thing for boats or submarines.

A real walking radar

Thanks to its advanced echolocation, the dolphin acts like a real radar under the sea. By emitting “clicks”, it spreads ultrasound which bounces off all surfaces and comes back to it in the form of vibrations in a spongy structure located in the jaw. lower. This organ, connected to the brain by the auditory nerve, allows it to scan the depths. A very precise tool, according to the ethologist: “It is capable of probing matter. Tests have shown that it can tell the difference between a wooden, lead or aluminum sphere, because the echo is not the same”. We can better understand the interest there would be in posting it as a “watchdog” in a strategic port.

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Especially since if it has enough space, depth and is well fed, the dolphin has no reason to escape. For this, Léa David, doctor in marine biology and specialist in cetaceans at the EcoOcéan institute, takes the example of Dolphin reef, located in the Red Sea: “Dolphins are only limited by buoys on the surface. Even if they go out from time to time to play with the waves, they always come back because they are not mistreated”.

Defender, but not necessarily attacker

A guard dog, therefore, but perhaps not an attack dog. Léa David doubts his abilities in this area: “He can defend himself against sharks or killer whales, so he can completely demolish a human. But I’m not sure he can directly attack or bite. The sensitivity of the cetacean has been demonstrated many times, and the biologist does not think the dolphin capable of aggressiveness on command: “They have a conscience that could hold them back; we know that they can react to the pain of another individual, for example”. On the other hand, the dolphin could attack a diver in the form of a game, according to Léa David: “We could teach him to tear off the pipe of a breathing system or diving bottles. We can even teach him to hold a man under water”.

A dolphin can learn a route by heart, go from point A to point B, complete a scouting mission with a camera on its back. “We even tried to make them lay mines,” adds Fabienne Delfour. Some were harnessed with an explosive device on their backs. The dolphins then had to stick to the hull of a target, and the device was released by magnetism or by remote control. But this idea, imagined by different powers, would have been abandoned.

Too playful to follow orders

“We know that some have lost their way, others have deserted”, laughs Fabienne Delfour. Because dolphins each have their own personality: there are docile ones, others a little more rebellious. For the ethologist, a cetacean can very well turn away from its mission if it does not find it amusing enough or if it is tired of playing. Because, capable of manipulating information and deceiving, the dolphin can very well come back to ask for his reward without having fulfilled his duty. Specialists even report the case of dolphins who, to prank their trainer, would have returned to their point of origin to play… with an explosive on their back.

It is undoubtedly this lack of reliability that has made armies, in particular that of the United States, prefer to turn to other species, according to Fabienne Delfour. In particular pinnipeds, such as sea lions or sea lions, reputed to be more diligent in their work.

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