Earlier this week, reports surfaced of a beluga whale spotted wearing a harness with the words “St. Petersburg” on it.
Experts said the harness looked like it could mount a GoPro camera, and the whale was reported to be tame and friendly with people.
Norwegian scientists told the Associated Press that they believe the whale was “most likely” trained by the “Russian navy in Murmansk.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what the mammal was being trained for or whether it was supposed to be part of any Russian military activity in the region.
The Russian government hasn’t commented on the whale. The country does not have a history of using whales for military purposes since the end of the Cold War, but the Soviet Union had a full-fledged training program for dolphins.
And Russia’s not alone in using sea animals in conjunction with the military.
In an email to Global News, the Royal Canadian Navy confirmed it does not train sea or marine animals. But the U.S. navy has trained dolphins and sea lions since the 1960s as part of its marine mammal program, which started during the Cold War.
According to its website, the navy has trained its animal “teammates” to detect threats underwater.
By using sonar, dolphins can detect dangerous items on the ocean floor like mines and other “potentially dangerous objects,” according to the U.S. navy’s website.
These mines are not readily detectable by electronic sonar, but dolphins can find them easily.
A trainer, left, touches the nose of U.S. navy dolphin “Shasta” during a demonstration at the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program facility at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, Thursday, April 12, 2007. The facility houses and trains about 75 dolphins and 25 sea lions, which the Navy uses for mine detection and force protection. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
Dolphins and sea lions can also dive deeper and see better than human divers.
New York Times reporter John Ismay previously served as an explosive ordnance disposal officer with the U.S. navy. He said dolphins were also trained to find enemy divers who could threaten naval operations.
Ismay says the animals are not trained offensively.
“Their mission is simply to find and mark things and then exit the area as quickly as possible; there are no weaponized dolphins,” he told the Times.
The U.S. navy’s marine mammal program has seen its fair share of controversy since being declassified in the ’90s.
In 2003, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) spoke up against using dolphins in the navy, saying the animals were used against their will and weren’t treated humanely.
In 2017, a video filmed by a local animal rights activist showed U.S. navy dolphins in a small pen with no room to swim around.
At the time, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) told CBS News: “We maintain the highest standards of care for our marine mammals, far exceeding what is required by federal regulations.”
—With files from the Associated Press
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