Are Ukrainian ‘killer’ dolphins really on the loose?

RIA-Novosti wins the prize for the scariest headline of the day (though Kim Jong Un’s pledges to obliterate a South Korean island are giving the Russian news agency a run for its money): "Ukrainian Killer Dolphins Deserted to Seek Mates – Expert." According to the state-owned outlet, the Ukrainian navy took control of a Soviet ...

U.S. Navy/Getty Images
U.S. Navy/Getty Images
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

RIA-Novosti wins the prize for the scariest headline of the day (though Kim Jong Un's pledges to obliterate a South Korean island are giving the Russian news agency a run for its money): "Ukrainian Killer Dolphins Deserted to Seek Mates - Expert."

According to the state-owned outlet, the Ukrainian navy took control of a Soviet program to train dolphins for combat purposes after the breakup of the USSR, and has more recently been training the mammals to "attack enemy combat swimmers using special knives or pistols fixed to their heads."

But before you start having nightmares about dolphins shooting out of the ocean with weapons jutting out of their snouts, consider this: Today's report is based on unconfirmed speculation from one expert -- and there's no indication that the dolphins were armed even if they did escape earlier this month:

RIA-Novosti wins the prize for the scariest headline of the day (though Kim Jong Un’s pledges to obliterate a South Korean island are giving the Russian news agency a run for its money): "Ukrainian Killer Dolphins Deserted to Seek Mates – Expert."

According to the state-owned outlet, the Ukrainian navy took control of a Soviet program to train dolphins for combat purposes after the breakup of the USSR, and has more recently been training the mammals to "attack enemy combat swimmers using special knives or pistols fixed to their heads."

But before you start having nightmares about dolphins shooting out of the ocean with weapons jutting out of their snouts, consider this: Today’s report is based on unconfirmed speculation from one expert — and there’s no indication that the dolphins were armed even if they did escape earlier this month:

Three of the Ukrainian navy’s "killer" dolphins that swam away from their handlers during training exercises probably left to look for mates, an expert said on Tuesday.

Ukrainian media reported earlier this month that only two of five military-trained dolphins returned to their base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol after a recent exercise.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry denied the reports, while refusing to confirm the navy makes use of dolphins, despite the frequent appearance in Ukrainian media of photographs of dolphins with military equipment strapped to them.

"Control over dolphins was quite common in the 1980’s," said Yury Plyachenko, a former Soviet naval anti-sabotage officer. "If a male dolphin saw a female dolphin during the mating season, then he would immediately set off after her. But they came back in a week or so."

Hysteria about Ukraine’s killer dolphins last surfaced in October, when the same Russian news agency — RIA-Novosti — reported that the Ukrainian navy had begun training attack dolphins, triggering headlines like, "The Ukrainian Navy Is Strapping Dolphins With Guns To Attack Swimmers." The basis for the report? An anonymous "military source."

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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