On Monday, the militant Palestinian group known as Hamas posted a video on social media accusing the Israeli military of deploying armed military dolphins off the coast of Gaza. Hamas, which was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997, showed equipment they claimed to have taken off a captured dolphin after it killed one of their “frogmen,” or military divers.
Military dolphins and other marine mammals have existed for decades in service to many different countries, though Israel does not have a publicly disclosed military marine mammal program. These animals are usually trained to look for things like submerged mines and aid in the recovery of sunken equipment alongside human trainers.
Hamas’ claims mark what could be the first time one of these military dolphins or other marine mammals have ever been accused of actually killing someone in the line of duty, however.
Although the video was posted online on Monday, it was brought to our attention on Tuesday, after the defense analysis site Covert Shores shared their initial findings and a mock-up of what a dolphin would look like wearing the equipment depicted in the video. We recommend you check that out here.
Israel, a non-member ally of NATO since 1987, has yet to publicly acknowledge Hamas’ claims on official channels, but social media seems to be another story entirely. On Wednesday, as news of the Hamas video continued to spread online, Israel’s official national Twitter account tweeted eight dolphin emoji’s in a row with no accompanying text. While not quite an official statement, it does seem to suggest that either Hamas’ claims are founded, or Israeli officials think the claim is so ridiculous it’s worth poking a bit of fun at.
This is the second time Hamas has claimed to capture an Israeli military dolphin
While this may seem like a crazy accusation, the idea of trained military dolphins is not without a great deal of precedent. In fact, this isn’t even the first time Hamas has accused Israel of of using them in the region.
In August of 2005, Hamas claimed to have have captured an Israeli dolphin equipped with cameras and other “spying devices” in the same waterway. Like this recent allegation, they offered no photographic evidence of the dolphin they claim to have captured, but within Arabic media, they claimed that it was “stripped of its will” and turned into a “murderer.”
Israeli authorities did not comment on the story.
Militaries have trained marine mammals for decades
The United States has trained Bottlenose dolphins and California Sea lions for military purposes since 1960s, though the effort was classified until the 1990s. Initially, the Navy experimented with training more than a dozen different kinds of marine mammals, according to the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program webpage, as well as sharks, rays, sea turtles, and even marine birds.
Eventually the program settled on Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) for service. Because these animals have evolved specifically for life beneath the surface of the ocean, they are extremely well suited for a wide variety of tasks that, while easy for them, would be difficult and even dangerous for human divers.
“Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to science. Mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor that are difficult to detect with electronic sonar, especially in coastal shallows or cluttered harbors, are easily found by the dolphins,” the Navy explains.
Sea lions aid in the recovery of sunken objects, and can even attach lines to lost equipment to be pulled up. Dolphins are trained to search and mark potential mines for human operators to come dispose of. But it’s not all fun and games for these aquatic service members. According to the Navy, both animals are also extremely well suited for hunting for bad guys, thanks to their “excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing that allow them to detect and track undersea targets, even in dark or murky waters.”
“Both dolphins and sea lions also assist security personnel in detecting and apprehending unauthorized swimmers and divers that might attempt to harm the Navy’s people, vessels, or harbor facilities,” the Navy Marine Mammal Program website states.
Of course, the United States isn’t the only nation with publicly disclosed military dolphins, whales, and other sea life. Russia began training marine mammals in 1965 in Crimea and then at the Murmansk Marine Biological Institute on the Arctic Ocean in 1984. A declassified CIA report on the Russian marine mammal program from the 1970s shows a sad state of affairs, with many dolphins killed due to poor environmental conditioning and a general lack of expertise. Many dolphins died for reasons as simple as being fed frozen fish before they were thawed, for instance.
In 2019, a beluga whale wearing Russian-sourced camera equipment was discovered by fishermen off the Norwegian coast. The Russian Defense Ministry reportedly also purchased five bottlenose dolphins for military purposes in 2016.
Ukraine absorbed the former Russian marine mammal program in Crimea, before reportedly selling it and its animals to Iran. kraine reportedly began a renewed marine mammal program a few years later.
Of course, there’s also been many other types of animals used in warfare by nations all over the world. The Polish Army enlisted an 880-pound Syrian brown bear named Wojtek, which they raised on vodka and beer during World War II. He helped carry equipment for troops, earned pay, and was eventually promoted to corporal. The Viet Cong were known to relocate Asian giant honey bee hives to trails used for enemy patrols and then set off fireworks to stir them into a frenzy. The list truly goes on and on.
But there’s also precedent for accusing Israel of conducting operations with all sorts of strange animals
Over the years, Israel has been accused of using all sorts of animals for everything from spying to assassinations. In fact, there’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to listing them that’s been divided into sections based on the types of animals: birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles.
In 2010, a member of the Egyptian military accused Israel of using GPS-guided sharks to attack civilians near the the Sinai Peninsula to negatively affect tourism. In 2012, the Sundanese government reportedly captured a vulture in the town of Kereinek they claimed was carrying electronic devices and tagged in Hebrew, one of hundreds they said were being used as spies. Accusations of using wild boars to damage Palestinian crops, rats to spread Bubonic plague in Egypt, lizards to spy on Iranian nuclear sites, and more have found their way into the media over the past twenty years.
It’s important to note that, while many of these claims may seem silly, that doesn’t mean there can’t be any truth to them. After all, nations have long used animals to aid in their military efforts, and we’re not just talking about horse-drawn carriages here. In the United States alone, there have been programs aimed at using pigeons to guide missiles, bombs filled with bats carrying incendiary charges, cats that can spy on Russians, and more. In the days before technology could solve most of man’s problems, the unique skills and capabilities found in our animal partners often seemed like a viable solution (though these efforts almost always ended in failure).
Is Israel using military dolphins to attack Hamas’ Frogmen off the coast of Gaza? It’s absolutely possible, and based on Israel’s reaction, potentially even feasible. But when it comes to stories about killer animals making the rounds on Twitter, it’s always best to take them with a grain of sea salt.