Do trained ‘killer’ dolphins really patrol Israeli waters?

Experts say truth could be stranger than fiction but claim by Hamas to have captured such a creature is shrouded in mystery

The US is one of several countries known to have a marine mammal programme in its navy. US Navy

Questions over a rumoured Israeli military programme resurfaced this week after Hamas paid tribute to a naval commando credited with capturing a trained killer dolphin.

In a video shared on social media, a spokesman for the Palestinian group’s military wing paid tribute to “martyr Abu Anas for discovering the first dolphin used by the enemy to detect our fighter swimmers”.

Thanks to the efforts of its Al Qassam Brigades fighter, “we discovered the first dolphin used by the enemy to chase down our marine forces in the depths of the sea,” the spokesman said.

Hamas claimed in 2015 to have captured an Israeli-trained dolphin it said was spotted making "suspicious movements” off the Gaza coast.

The video contained images of a harness it said had been taken from the dolphin, featuring what appeared to be a harpoon that could have been mounted to the creature’s nose.

Stories of armed dolphins patrolling the waters off Gaza may sound like something in a spy novel, but could Israel really use animals as part of its naval operations?

Experts told The National the truth could be stranger than fiction.

A screenshot from a video posted by Hamas showing what appears to be a dolphin harness.

Naval analyst and author HI Sutton said that though contact between Hamas frogmen and dolphins cannot be confirmed, “it is plausible that Israel has a navy dolphin programme”.

The animals “would likely be used to protect key sites from saboteurs and enemy divers,” he said.

Pressing marine mammals such as dolphins into military service is not without precedent.

“The US, Russia and possibly North Korea also have marine mammal programmes,” he said.

“Russia is believed to have deployed some trained dolphins to Tartus, Syria, in 2018. Their role would have been counter-diver operations. It is unlikely that Hamas divers would have encountered these though.

Hamas and Israeli naval drones

Whether or not Israel’s navy has a marine mammal program, the Israeli navy has taken an interest in unconventional underwater surveillance and sabotage, a departure from manned submarines.

Unmanned systems such as the secretive Caesaron submarine, are likely designed for sea mine clearance and reconnaissance, according to analysis by Mr Sutton.

Such vessels could detect infiltrating Al Qassam Brigades commandos, along with sonar systems being developed by the Israelis such as Aquashield, which is also designed to detect divers.

In 2014, five Hamas frogmen were killed on Zikim Beach, near the border with Gaza, during an attempt to attack an Israeli military base.

Another reason for Israel’s unconventional sea operations is Hamas’ increasing use of its own underwater systems, although little is widely known about such programmes.

In May 2018, the Israeli army said it had bombed a site for “advanced maritime weaponry capable of naval infiltration and carrying out terror attacks by Hamas naval forces”.

An Israeli military submarine sails past cargo ships in the Mediterranean Sea, Israel, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. After a coronavirus-related delay, Israel's navy is preparing for the long-awaited arrival of its next generation of missile boats - giving it a powerful new tool to defend its strategic natural gas industry from the threat of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Last May, during the most recent Hamas-Israel conflict, the Israeli military said it had killed Hamas operatives who had tried to launch an underwater drone from the shore.

The Israeli military has also said it is monitoring the possibility that Hamas has developed semi-submersible boats known as Gliders, which have a barely visible profile in the water, similar to ‘narco subs’ used by drug smugglers.

“In the May conflict, the IDF said it destroyed at least one autonomous submarine that tried to attack an Israeli naval assets,” said Joe Truzman, an analyst at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a US think tank.

“It’s reasonable to believe the team operating the submarine, who were also killed in the strike, could have been three Hamas naval commandos killed during the war.”

Mr Truzman said Hamas has not yet acknowledged having underwater drones, but such an admission could be forthcoming in light of the group’s first acknowledged use of loitering munitions, or “kamikaze drones”, in March.

Updated: January 12th 2022, 3:49 PM