Teaching an Old Dolphin New Tricks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mack, Vakh and Diana were once among the elite of the Soviet navy. They were trained to locate underwater mines, detect enemy frogmen and, according to some, kill without warning.

That was a decade ago, and the country they served no longer exists. Today they still live at the Kazachya Bay Naval Base on the Black Sea, but they have a new job: helping cure children of their nightmares, phobias and bed-wetting.

Call it military conversion, Ukrainian-style.

The three former cold warriors--or should we say cold water warriors--were members of a select corps of 70 bottlenose dolphins lavished with unlimited funds by the Soviet Union in its quest to create the ultimate aquatic weapon.

With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the demand for combat dolphins evaporated. The poverty-stricken Ukrainian navy, which inherited the former Soviet naval base and more than two dozen dolphins stationed there, was hard-pressed to find ways to maintain its highly trained assets. And so it went into business.

Kazachya Bay used to be a top-secret base closed to all outsiders. Now, for $10 a session, children can swim with Mack, Vakh or Diana in a treatment program the navy says can cure a wide range of ailments.

In a nearby indoor pool once used for dolphin training, navy researchers run circus shows for paying tourists. At the end of each show, the trainers auction off pictures painted by the dolphins, for the equivalent of a few dollars. The money, they say, buys fish to feed the animals.

Other dolphins and their former military trainers are dispatched under contract to perform in aquatic shows in such places as Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and other parts of Ukraine.

"At Kazachya Bay, the people are the same. The dolphins are the same. The facility is the same. Only the bookkeeping is different," says Igor Borovichenko, a dolphin trainer who has worked in the naval program for 20 years, most recently in circus shows.

Many of the activities at the base are shrouded in secrecy, and the distinction between military and civilian is fuzzy. All the administrators at the base are naval officers, and the navy maintains control over the animals.

Some harbor hope that the military program will someday be revived.

The tricks the dolphins perform in aquatic shows are simpler than the military maneuvers they were taught, but many of the moves are rooted in the same behavior. For a dolphin, touching a paintbrush to paper is not much different from attaching an explosive device to the hull of a ship. Naval researchers say it would take only six months to bring the dolphins back to top form.

Program Was a Source of National Pride

The navy's success in training dolphins for military purposes once symbolized Soviet might and helped boost national pride, much like the Mir space station and the Soviet fleet of nuclear submarines.

But in practical terms, the dolphins were an expensive specialty squad used primarily for retrieving objects from the sea floor and guarding the bay outside their own base. Today, with Ukraine in desperate straits, the dolphins must pay their way.

"We are trying to live in accordance with our means and tailor our demands to what we actually make here," says Commodore Valery Vakar, deputy director of the sea mammal training center. "Everything revolves around money."

For now, the big moneymaker is treating children and adults for all manner of ailments.

Lyudmila Lukina, who heads the treatment program, says she believes that "hundreds of illnesses" can be successfully treated by the psychotherapeutic effects of exposure to the dolphins and their sonar clicks.

"Dolphins have ideal natural ultrasound devices," she says. "They are unique biological ultrasound machines."

Over the years, the base has treated more than 2,000 patients, she says, many of them young children with neuroses ranging from stuttering to obsessive behavior. Lukina says the treatment provides "some measure of improvement" for 96% of patients and "cures 70% of child neuroses" in patients younger than 7.

Similar dolphin therapy is conducted at a center in Florida, but many Western scientists are dubious about the effectiveness of swimming with the animals. They attribute the successes of dolphin treatment to the increased attention the patient receives--and the benefit of a vacation at the seashore.

Dolphins, considered among the most intelligent of mammals, can live as long as 50 years in the wild. At 22, the gentle and patient Diana is one of the oldest at Kazachya Bay.

Trainers say dolphins of all ages are like human children in their constant desire to play. They're quick to learn and just as quick to take advantage of a trainer's weakness.

"They try to emulate sounds and behavior. This proves they are very observant animals," says Vladimir Petrushin, a former Soviet navy dolphin trainer who now runs an aquatic show in Moscow.

Dolphins and their trainers often form a strong attachment. If a trainer forgets a part of the routine, it is sometimes the dolphin that reminds him what to do.

"Of course you establish a special bond," Petrushin says. "If you work together for a long time, the animal knows your weak spots and strengths and knows how to work with you."

Yet at Kazachya Bay, the Soviet-era view that nature exists merely as a resource for humans to exploit remains strongly entrenched.

"Dolphins are yet another arm helping human beings," says Vakar, the training center's deputy director. "They are like dogs. They can carry bags. They can be guard dogs. It's a natural thing for a human to keep a dog and take care of a dog. Why can't we do the same with dolphins?"

The Soviet dolphin program was nearly identical to one that has been operated by the U.S. Navy in San Diego for the past four decades, former Soviet trainers say. Since the end of the Cold War, officials from San Diego and Kazachya Bay have struck up friendly relations, but neither side has revealed much to the public about how it has employed its animals.

The San Diego program is still functioning, but the number of dolphins has dropped from 95 to 75, with the "excess" mammals sent to marine theme parks in Florida and the Bahamas.

The Pentagon has acknowledged using its dolphins as underwater sentries during the Vietnam War in 1970 and in the Persian Gulf during the late '80s. The U.S. has also said that dolphins have been trained to place explosives on the hulls of ships and have been used to detect mines. Soviet intelligence once claimed that the CIA planned to use dolphins in one of its attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Over the years, there have been fantastic unconfirmed reports about the Soviet dolphin program. By one account, dolphins capable of killing enemy frogmen were dropped in special parachute harnesses from two miles up on secret search missions. Some claim that the Soviets killed hundreds of dolphins by strapping explosives on their backs and sending them on kamikaze missions to sink vessels.

Vakar says such stories were the product of journalists' "sick imaginations." Nevertheless, some former Soviet officials and researchers acknowledge that dolphins were trained to kill people.

"Detection and destruction of enemy frogmen is a real task, but I'm not authorized to talk about it," says Boris Zhurid, who once headed subsurface operations at Kazachya Bay and now runs a marine mammal show in Iran. "Since dolphins were part of the anti-sabotage and anti-subversion program, various weapons were designed. We can't say the dolphins were equipped with the weapons en masse, but some such designs existed."

One weapon the Soviets allegedly developed was a device smaller than a cigarette pack that could inject carbon dioxide into an enemy swimmer, causing a quick death. The mechanism was designed so a dolphin could easily attach it to a frogman and swim away.

Experts at Locating Expended Torpedoes

For the most part, however, the military duties of the dolphins at Kazachya Bay were more mundane. The animals were perhaps most valuable on the weapons test range, where they could use their highly developed sonar to locate and recover expended torpedoes and other items more effectively than man-made devices.

Over the years, the dolphins found dozens of test torpedoes as well as mines, sunken vessels, crashed planes, the remnants of a submarine, dozens of ancient Greek amphorae and a 12th century vase from Genoa.

Today, officials at Kazachya Bay have hopes of expanding the dolphins' peacetime repertoire. They envision the animals performing underwater exploration for geological surveys, rescuing accident victims at sea and helping humans repair offshore oil rigs. The navy continues to capture dolphins for its own program and to sell to animal parks and aquatic shows. Still, the center has found limited commercial opportunities for its squad.

Trainers say the animals operate at only a fraction of their capacity when jumping through hoops and performing midair somersaults.

"When you are working in the open sea, you have to be completely in control," Borovichenko says after a performance at a Yalta hotel. "Here, if an animal doesn't perform an element of the program, the spectator won't even notice."

Anton Pugovkin, another veteran navy trainer who now works in an aquatic show in the Crimea region, says his job used to be to teach the dolphins to perform complex tasks. Now he trains them to perform physical acts.

"It's like asking a top designer who has made aircraft all his life to make a bicycle," he says.

Little has been done over the past decade to spruce up the rundown 35-year-old "dolphinarium" on the tip of the Crimean peninsula. The dolphins are kept in outdoor pens alongside two aging wooden docks. Rusting naval ships are anchored offshore, and oil tanks dot Kazachya Bay's opposite shore. Visitors climb down a flight of steps from the dock to swim with the animals in their pens.

Zhurid, the former chief of subsurface operations, is saddened by the deterioration of the Kazachya Bay center. What was once a top-notch research facility, he says, has become a "military zoo" maintained simply for the pleasure of Ukraine's top brass.

"If a bigwig from the Defense Ministry comes to visit with his family and friends, he can get a unique chance for his kids to swim with the dolphins for free," Zhurid says. "There's no chance on Earth he would ever close down this facility."

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