A Soviet-era military program training dolphins and seals for combat will be revived in Crimea after its annexation by Russia, according to Russian state media.
The so-called combat dolphins will be re-trained, re-equipped and deployed battle-ready to the Russian Navy, an employee at the aquarium in Sevastopol told Voice Of Russia on Wednesday.
Russian troops have ousted Ukrainian forces in Crimea and seized their ships and military bases after Russia incorporated the peninsula as part of the country last week, a move denounced as illegal by Ukraine.
As Russian passports are distributed and Crimea's residents contemplate their sudden nationality switch, state news agency Rio Novosti pointed out the far-reaching implications, noting: "The dolphins themselves have now become Russian."
Crimea's dolphins were first trained to plant explosives and locate mines in a Soviet Union military program at the Sevastopol aquarium in the 1960s, according to The Moscow Times. The newspaper writes: "Whether they actually engaged in military activity is disputed but the dolphins were later used to locate lost military and scientific equipment."
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Crimea became an autonomous republic under the sovereignty of newly-independent Ukraine, the dolphins were retired. The aquarium was repurposed for civilian use, including activities for children with disabilities, according to Ria Novosti.
In 2012, Russian news outlets reported that the Ukrainian military had put the combat dolphins back on duty, but the Ukrainian defense ministry denied the reports.
It appears the aquarium is keen to get back in the business, having designed new detection equipment for the dolphins. "The Ukrainian Navy lacked the funds for such know-how, and some projects had to be shuttered," the aquarium employee told Ria Novosti, noting that they now hope for Russian Navy support.
Dolphins' powerful underwater sonar capabilities brought them to the attention of both the U.S. and Soviet Navies during the Cold War. From the 1960s, U.S. Navy dolphins were trained to deliver equipment and retrieve objects underwater, as well as to hold a camera in their mouths for underwater spying, according to PBS. The U.S. program, classified until 1992, has been scaled back as the dolphins are increasingly replaced by robots, the BBC reports.