UPDATE: Good news and bad news in our follow-up for this story. The good news is we retained a strong level of skepticism about this story's veracity. The bad, or "sad" news is that it indeed appears to have been too crazy to be true. Though, as we noted in our original post, the most important part about the dolphin training program (that is exists) appears to be completely legitimate and comports with similar programs employed by other governments around the world. But the claim that "armed" dolphins are on the loose does not. Original story begins below.
No, it’s not a promo for the latest Syfy movie. There are claims circulating that three dolphins, trained to attack humans, have escaped from a Ukrainian military training facility allegedly armed with head-mounted guns and knives.
Could this seemingly outrageous claim be true? Unfortunately, the U.S. media have nothing on a number of international publications that publish completely fabricated tales, often to score political points. And for its part, the Ukrainian government has denied the claim, calling it a “fabrication” and a “gross provocation.”
The Russian publication RIA Novosti says the Ukrainian dolphin program is two-fold: training the dolphins to detect and mark mines and equipping them with weapons to attack enemy human swimmers who may pose a threat to Ukrainian naval vessels.
Interestingly, Wired points out that some Russian soldiers are actually trained to combat dolphins in case they are attacked by them while on a mission.
And as sensational as it may sound, it’s not like this story simply appeared out of thin air. As several news outlets have reported, the former Soviet Union engaged in similar training practices with dolphins and the sea-faring mammals have been used by countries around the world in various naval exercises, including in the U.S. Navy.
On its website, the Navy explains: “The U.S. Navy has found that the biological sonar of dolphins, called echolocation, makes them uniquely effective at locating sea mines so they can be avoided or removed. Other marine mammals like the California sea lion also have demonstrated the ability to mark and retrieve objects for the Navy in the ocean. In fact, marine mammals are so important to the Navy that there is an entire program dedicated to studying, training, and deploying them.”
Of course, as Wired points out, the U.S. Navy has a perfectly good explanation for why it doesn't weaponize dolphins: self-preservation. In a FAQ on its marine mammal-training program, the Navy writes:
“Since dolphins cannot discern the difference between enemy and friendly vessels, or enemy and friendly divers and swimmers, it would not be wise to give that kind of decision authority to an animal.”
Indeed. No one wants to get caught in the crosshairs of Flipper.
You can read more about the Soviet-era dolphin-training program here.