Dolphins of War Seek New Jobs And Cleaner Waters

MILITARY conversion typically involves turning tanks into tractors, swords into plowshares. But what becomes of military dolphins? In Ukraine's Black Sea port of Sevastopol, six dolphins, once part of a top-secret Soviet Navy division, have been looking for a job since the Soviet Union broke up. One of them, fitted with a special training vest and headgear, dives to the sea bed at the oceanarium at the flick of his trainer's wrist to practice searching for torpedoes and mines. When he pops back up to the surface, offering a toothy grin in exchange for a herring, his trainer unhooks his gear and the dolphin shows off his other skills - fetching a plastic ball and ''singing'' for an audience in dolphin chatter. It never hurts an out-of-work dolphin to know a few circus tricks, explains trainer Anton Pugovkin. ''We had only just reached the point where their training could really pay off. It's a real shame the Soviet Union had to collapse.'' ''It's so hard on research and science,'' says Mr. Pugovkin. ''Financially, we're close to the edge right now. If something doesn't change, we'll have to sell the dolphins to the circus.'' It wasn't always this way. At its prime, the 29-year-old division housed up to 70 dolphins at a time, for training, work, and study. Twenty trainers maintained a rigorous program, teaching the dolphins and handful of sea lions to recover experimental weaponry lost at sea and patrol strategic ports for enemy frogmen. A huge bank of dolphin data Dozens of scientists visited the compound from across the Soviet Union to contribute to a massive data bank on dolphin biology and behavior. But now the Soviet military's might - and money - is a thing of the past. After independence in 1991, Ukraine claimed the dolphin division as its own, under both the defense ministry and academy of sciences in Kiev. But neither the tiny Ukrainian Navy nor the state-run academy has much money to spend on dolphins, considering Ukraine's shaky post-Soviet economy. The former Soviet Black Sea fleet - hotly disputed between Ukraine and Russia and technically under Moscow's command - has political as well as financial reasons for not giving the dolphins a job. Surviving in today's conditions is a first-hand lesson in capitalism, says Capt. Valery Kulagin, who heads the naval division running the dolphin program. To pay for frozen fish and salaries for the trainers, the oceanarium is leasing space at a nearby dock to a shipping company. It ruins the view and dirties the water, but at least the dolphins aren't starving. Last year, a year-old dolphin born at the oceanarium died of malnutrition because the program was too broke to buy enough fish. Only one of the dolphins at the oceanarium - a maze of rickety wooden docks surrounding net cages off the shore of the sea - is being used for practical work. Dolphin therapy Diana, the sole female, has been trained in ''dolphin therapy'' and often swims with children who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. Children as young as 2 ease into Diana's net cage, grip her smooth, gray dorsal fin, and enjoy a gentle ride. They emerge from the water after swimming with Diana, glowing with delight. The other dolphins are still under study for their underwater acoustical ability, their language, how they have adapted to living underwater, and their diving mechanisms. But their trainers keep the dolphins' searching skills sharp in case contracts start flowing in. Captain Kulagin says he hopes to persuade the government or private companies to use the dolphins to help prospect for oil and gas in the Black Sea. Another plan is creating a dolphin sanctuary or ''environmental park'' for foreign tourists, despite Sevastopol's status as a closed military city. ''We've had dolphins born here, so we know what we're doing. ''The Black Sea is getting dirtier all the time and we believe domestication - getting them to be like cats or dogs - can save them,'' Capt. Kulagin said. The oceanarium has already captured 15 dolphins for breeding. Still wild and unused to confinement and frozen fish, they nevertheless frolic in their cages in what seems to be a perpetual state of play. But the military is still the big hope. ''They are not creatures of combat. You certainly couldn't get a dolphin in a [battle] tank,'' Kulagin said. ''But they could find torpedoes and mines, and they did it well, with great pleasure.'' 'We had only just reached the point where their training could really pay off. If something doesn't change, we'll have to sell them to the circus.' - Trainer Anton Pugovkin

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