By Kate Darling
In the early 2000s, a Russian man named Boris Zhurid struck a deal to sell the Iranians a large collection of weaponry. He chartered a transport aircraft to make the delivery from Sevastopol, the largest city on the Crimean Peninsula, in the Black Sea, to the Persian Gulf. An old sonar manufacturer brochure describes what Zhurid was peddling as, “self-propelled marine vehicle[s], or platform[s]; with a built-in sonar sensor system suitable for detecting and classifying targets; and carrying an on-board computer… capable of being programmed for complex performance.” The cargo of Zhurid’s chartered plane? Twenty-seven animals, including dolphins, walruses, sea lions, seals and a white beluga whale.
Dolphins attacking enemy divers with strap-on harpoons sounds like something from a James Bond movie, but both the United States and the Soviet navies started secret marine mammal training programs in the 1960s. Despite an unsuccessful attempt by the British during World War I, whose trained sea lions turned out to be better at following fish than German submarines, militaries worldwide began experimenting with aquatic animals. The US Navy tested a wide range of sea creatures, from turtles to birds to sharks, eventually settling on bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. The investment paid off: the animals had physical capabilities, senses and intelligence that were extremely handy for all sorts of operations. They also have a colourful history, both in their uses as pseudo-robots and also in relation to real robots.