Ukraine's Military Dolphins Captured By Russian Forces Die After Apparently Refusing To Defect


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

A bottlenose dolphin trains as part of the US Navy's Marine Mammal Program. Pierre G. Georges/US Navy; Public Domain

As reported by the Guardian and elsewhere, Ukraine has claimed that their loyal dolphin army that was captured by Russia awhile back refused to defect and instead went on a hunger strike. According to the Ukrainian government’s representative at the occupied Crimean base, the dolphins died “patriotically” as a result.

So, we might need to backtrack a little, eh?


Military dolphins are real-life members of a select few countries’ armed forces, including the US Navy, whose decidedly specialized division of intelligent marine mammals have been operating in waters around the globe since 1959. In fact, the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program – which uses both bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions – has proved highly effective in finding and recovering objects in coastal waters in the open sea.

Like other countries, the US tested a range of marine animals at first, including rays, sea turtles, and sharks. Dolphins (and sea lions) are, however, the most reliable, as they’re “known for their trainability and adaptability to a wide range of marine environments,” according to the program’s website.

They also happen to have excellent low-light vision and underwater hearing capabilities, and they don’t suffer from any decompression sickness at depth, unlike human divers. They are perfectly capable of marking mines and undersea equipment, and although “someday it may be possible to complete these missions with underwater drones… for now, technology is no match for the animals.”

So – what’s the deal with Russia and Ukraine, two countries that, to put it mildly, don’t see eye to eye at the moment?


The Ukrainian Navy also had their own group of military dolphins; 10 of them were on active duty in Sevastopol, and reports seem to suggest that they were trained (originally by the Soviet Union) to perform similar tasks to their American counterparts.

It was also reported some were given mines and trained to be sent on kamikaze attacks. Some more questionable news sources even suggested that the Ukrainian Navy, a few years back, were training them to attack enemy combatants using “special knives or pistols fixed to their heads.”

Putting that all aside for now, let’s instead jump to early 2014, when Russian forces invaded and then annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Sevastopol, the largest city on the peninsula, was also overrun, and it was reported at the time that the Russian military thieved Ukraine’s dolphin forces too, hoping to retrain them.

After denying the program existed in 2014, the Ukrainian authorities – while in the middle of dealing with a pro-Russian armed insurrection in the east – demanded that Russia give them back their damn dolphins. They obviously refused, and in 2016, it appeared that Russia was also actively looking to buy a few more bottlenose dolphins to join the fight.


Apparently, things didn’t go so swimmingly. One Ukrainian newspaper recently reported that “the trained animals refused to not only interact with the new Russian coaches, but refused food and… perished.”

Much of this is impossible to verify, but regardless, dolphins clearly don’t understand the concept of politically-motivated hunger strikes or patriotism. If some or all of them have indeed died, it’s probably because of stress or poor living conditions.

There may be some hope, though. It was also reported back in 2014 that, prior to the invasion, three of the dolphins allegedly escaped captivity altogether and fled. Oh, the tales they’d have to tell.


  • tag
  • dolphins,

  • mammals,

  • military,

  • Russian,

  • navy,

  • invasion,

  • died,

  • defection,

  • ukrainian,

  • annexation,

  • hunger strike