According to a top Ukrainian official, Ukraine‘s dolphin army patriotically committed suicide after falling into Russian hands.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, several of Ukraine’s naval assets were taken over by Russia. One of these assets was a facility for training marine mammals in Sevastopol, Crimea. After the annexation, Ukraine made a plea for Russia to return the dolphins, but Moscow declined to do so. Dmitry Yunusov, first deputy head of the Henichesk Regional State Administration, said, “The military dolphins need to be returned to our country in the same way that Russia returned Ukraine’s seized military equipment.”
The dolphins were trained to detect enemy divers, sea mines, and spying equipment. The dolphins weren’t just espionage experts, they were also combat ready, able to attack enemy divers with guns strapped to their heads and plant bombs on ships, making them incredibly valuable naval assets.
Ukrainian authorities expressed grave concerns for the welfare of their underwater spies. Reports eventually surfaced that Moscow was planning to retrain Ukraine’s dolphin army as Russian spies. A source told the Russian state run news agency, RIA Novosti, that Moscow had invested heavily in “preserving and redirecting the combat dolphin programme towards the Russian navy.”
The Dolphin Hunger Strike
Meanwhile, Russia denies they were ever in possession of the dolphin spies, claiming all combat dolphins were sold by Ukraine or had died of natural causes before 2014. But this week, news broke that the dolphins have died. Ukraine’s government authority in Crimea, Boris Babin, has announced that all the dolphins have died a patriotic death serving their country. After attempts were made to forcibly retrain Ukraine’s dolphin army as Russian spies, the dolphins refused to eat until they died.
Babin explained, “The dolphins, trained by the [Ukrainian] naval forces in Sevastopol, would communicate with their trainers through special whistles. The Russians obtained these whistles and the rest of the special equipment belonging to the military unit but the trained animals refused not only to cooperate with the Russian trainers, but [also] refused food and subsequently died.”
“The issue is not about a handful of mammals who died because they were obviously distressed, be it because of their trainers or for other reasons,” Babin said.
Drawing attention back to the perils of the ongoing conflict with Russia, he went on to say, “We can speak about something else – that over the course of these few years, unfortunately, our potential in many spheres, including the naval sphere, requires significant improvement.”
The reports of the dolphin’s refusal to surrender to Russian control has sparked the imagination of Ukrainian patriots. Moscow has been quick to disparage the reports of a patriotic dolphin army. Russian Duma deputy Dmitry Belik, told state news agency RIA Novosti, “There can be no talk about any Ukrainian patriotism with regards to the combat dolphins because under Ukraine, the special forces dolphins… were involved entirely in commercial activities, not underwater operations.”
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, it wasn’t just the dolphin spies that faced a test of loyalty. All 193 military units on the peninsula were ordered by Moscow to defect to Russia or be deported. Babin commented, “Many Ukrainian soldiers took their oath and loyalty much less seriously than these dolphins.”
The story of Ukraine’s dolphin army, may seem bizarre, but the military use of dolphins is actually not such a new phenomenon.
The research and training facility in Sevastopol was established in 1973 by the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the USSR, the secretive marine mammal training facility was handed over to the Ukrainian government.
There have also been reports of the Israeli navy training dolphins for military use. In 2015, Hamas claimed to have captured a Israeli dolphin spied outfitted with a monitoring device and a weapon that could fire arrows underwater. The US Army also trains dolphins and sea lions for reconnaissance and rescue missions, but claims the sea mammals are never outfitted with weapons.
Dolphins are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals on earth; their brain to body size ratio is second only to humans. Dolphins have been shown to mimic human behavior, recognize themselves in a mirror, form complex corporations, pass communication tools between generations, and understand symbols and syntax. At one point, NASA was investing in teaching dolphins English.
Considering dolphin intelligence and their ability to bond with humans, it’s no surprise governments have experimented with utilizing the aquatic mammals in military operations.
Do Dolphins Commit Suicide?
Babin’s claims about dolphins suicide are not without precedent, but the mass suicide of Ukraine’s dolphin army might have more to do with their complex social bonds than with patriotic sentiment. Although dolphin nationalism is a field yet to be explored. Dolphins form complex social structures displaying empathy, bonding, and altruism. They’re also known to mourn their dead.
When in captivity, some dolphins will even refuse food until they die after the death of a companion. As highly social creatures, dolphins are also known to commit suicide when kept in isolation.
Unlike humans, dolphins do not breathe automatically. There have been many reports of dolphins refusing to breathe once they have become depressed. Ric O’Barry, Flipper’s long time trainer, spoke out against dolphin captivity after Flipper, or Kathy as she was named in real life, became depressed and committed suicide.
He told Oprah, “She was really depressed… You have to understand dolphins and whales are not air breathers like we are. Every breath they take is a conscious effort. They can end their life whenever.”
He described her emotional death, saying, “She swam into my arms and looked me right in the eye, took a breath and didn’t take another one. I let her go and she sank straight down on her belly to the bottom of the tank.”
As shown by Kathy’s story, dolphins are able to form complex bonds with humans. When seperated from a human they have bonded with, dolphins will often refuse to breathe and die. Dolphins are also very sensitive to sound. When subjected to too much noise, dolphins in captivity have been known to become distressed and stop breathing.