In my youth, as I’ve mentioned before, I was something of a conspiracy theorist myself, and every now and then I stumble across a false belief I’ve been holding unquestioned since that time. Such an instance occurred recently during a discussion with a conspiracist who held the entirely unsupported opinion that the U.S. had trained migratory birds to deliver bioweapons from into Russia. Afterall, he concluded, the Pentagon had previously trained dolphins to deliver bombs, hadn’t they?
Well, actually, it turns out, no they hadn’t, the US Navy does indeed have a somewhat controversial Marine Mammal Program, dating all the way back to the 1960s, which uses dolphins for object recovery, mine location and marking, and intruder detection and apprehension, but there is no evidence that this program has ever trained dolphins for the delivery of bombs. Indeed the U.S. Navy is quite insistent that their dolphins have never been used as offensive weapons.
Despite this, allegations and rumours have emerged over the years of a Swimmer Nullification Program, including claims of dolphins trained to pull regulators from divers’ mouths, and ram them with bang-sticks, dart-guns, or nitrogen-loaded embolism-causing hypodermic-needles. However, experts, including no-less-than the trainer of TV's Flipper, who himself claims to have rejected an offer to be involved, generally conclude that these Dr. Evil-style schemes, if they were ever actually attempted, are incredibly unlikely to have been successful.
Reports of soviet trained killer dolphins, meanwhile, trace back to a 2000 interview with chief trainer Boris Zhurid, in which he marketed his dolphins, then being sold to Iran, as being trained to kill intruders with harpoons and undertake suicide strikes on enemy vessels. Doubts, however, have been cast by experts on the claim that dolphins could distinguish friend from foe on the basis of propellor sound and that such an expensive asset would be wasted on a kamikaze mission.
As to where the seemingly common false belief in bomb-delivery dolphins comes from, we can perhaps, as the US Navy indeed does, point to the source of so many false beliefs: popular entertainment. In particular, the 1973 sci-fi thriller “The Day of the Dolphin”, in which dolphins are trained to carry out political assassination by delivering bombs. This, according to the US Navy, was further compounded by animal rights propaganda and the fact that their program was unable to defend itself due to being classified until the 90s.
And so it is that I am finally able to cast off another long-held false belief as just as unlikely a bioweapon delivered by Speckled Jim. The lesson to always question our beliefs being all the more important in this fog of disinformation surrounding the war in Ukraine. Oh, and in case you were wondering where Ukraine’s own military dolphins are in all this, well they apparently starved themselves to death on a patriotic hunger strike after being taken captive during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, but I think I’ll reserve judgment on that one.