- In 1964, the CIA launched an effort to use bottlenose dolphins to attack enemy ships.
- Strangely, the effort coincided with the popularity of Flipper, a TV show about a dolphin that patrolled a Florida water park and fought crime.
- While the program never panned out, another designed to save human lives by detecting sea mines did.
In the mid-1960s, America befriended the dolphin. That much was clear in pop culture with the television show Flipper, which depicted dolphins as smart cetaceans that could help humans. In parallel—far from Hollywood studios, and buried in the covert world of secret intelligence—the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was experimenting with dolphins for a far darker purpose: blowing things up.
Back in 2019, the CIA released a trove of previously secret files that detail various undercover experiments, including the strange dolphin endeavor coined "Project OXYGAS." The agency introduced OXYGAS in the early 1960s, right around the time Flipper hit the big screen, to train bottlenose dolphins to attach explosive devices to enemy ships.
Flipper, described by some fans as the "Lassie of the Sea," was a fictional friendly dolphin who lived in Florida and patrolled a nature preserve. Flipper was smart, obeyed commands, and was a reliable friend to humans. The eponymous 1963 movie was followed by a television show of the same name a year later, and dolphins were suddenly a major part of the public consciousness. It's unclear if the film or TV show directly influenced the CIA, but by 1964 it had set up a secret training program to train dolphin saboteurs.
Documents show that the agency kicked off OXYGAS using at least two captured wild dolphins. The program envisioned training the dolphins to quietly infiltrate enemy bays and harbors, attaching explosive devices to the hulls of enemy ships, and then slipping back to a waiting boat.
By November of 1964, the Office of Research and Development (the scientific research arm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) was cautiously optimistic: "Quite frankly this project has progressed more quickly than we anticipated, although unbridled enthusiasm is not justified at this time." ORD stated that, despite communications problems between handler and animal, and the need to determine a proper payload shape, it thought the CIA could perform a full-on test by January 1965.
CIA documents never mention specific kinds of explosive devices, but the agency probably planned on using conventional devices like the limpet mines human divers relied on during World War II.
It's also within the realm of possibility that the CIA had nuclear weapons in mind. Nukes had grown smaller and lighter in the 19 years since the 10,000-pound "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Although nukes were still too big for dolphins to reasonably carry, the rapid pace of miniaturization suggested it was only a matter of time. In one document from February 1965, the CIA reported that "two dolphins are now routinely delivering simulated..." The rest of the paragraph is redacted from public view.
Meanwhile, Maritime Branch—the arm of the CIA that dealt in sea and coastal operations— was extremely interested in using dolphins (or what it called "unmanned systems"). It was more interested in the practical aspects of using dolphins, like how to fly a trained dolphin to and from a distant part of the world to complete a mission and how to get the mammal into the water to perform its mission. Eventually, the CIA decided to use a modified boat to transport dolphins in and out of the water. Someone at the CIA also put together a print (see the image at the top of this story) depicting OXYGAS dolphins slipping away from a submarine, towing bombs from harnesses attached to their snouts.
The CIA was so impressed with OXYGAS that it envisioned plenty of other covert missions for dolphins. Those included "attacks on a variety of ship types," "harbor and coastal reconnaissance through photographic means," specialized electronic intelligence gathering, and the placement of "sonar, acoustic, and seismic buoys." The agency even imagined dolphins deploying weapons-of-mass-destruction sensors including "rocket detection buoys," biological warfare and chemical warfare sensors, and trace element sensors meant to detect radioactive elements released into the atmosphere by a nuclear explosion. This was particularly important at the time given that China had just conducted its first nuclear test and the CIA was eager to detect further tests.
Despite its progress on the program, the CIA ran into what would become an intractable problem: wild animals are quirky and not especially reliable. In January 1964, the CIA acknowledged that there were limitations to using wild animals as guided weapons, and reached out to the Navy's Office of Naval Research for help. A month later, the Chief of the Life Science Division at the Office of Research and Development expressed concern that dolphins were becoming fixated on pleasing their trainers, and might ignore unfamiliar field agents during a mission.
By 1967, the CIA's Technical Requirements Board recommended a change of tack: the OXYGAS dolphins would instead focus on intelligence collection. In their new role, the agency dolphins would approach a hostile country from at least 12 miles away. In this watery version of the classic "dead drop" (a technique for transferring items in espionage parlance), the dolphins would then retrieve objects that spies left in shallow water or floating near shore. However, the Board noted it was difficult to train dolphins to travel more than 12 miles across unfamiliar waters.
September 1967 saw the CIA's support for OXYGAS start to run out of steam. A proposal for the program to become a joint Department of Defense/CIA program went nowhere. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, an early form of today's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), wanted to help fund the program because it thought dolphins could help differentiate various types of radars from one another. By 1970, however, the CIA had zeroed out funding for the dolphin program entirely.
What happened? The CIA apparently ran into the limitations of using tame—but still wild— animals for critical tasks. Human trainers could not impress upon dolphins the importance of their work (if that were even possible). Meanwhile, the Navy continued its own dolphin program, which used the mammals to hunt for mines and other underwater explosive devices, a program that continues to this day. Maybe it's just a coincidence that the program to kill humans failed and the program to save humans succeeded, but if Flipper were a real dolphin, he probably would have approved.