By Askold Krushelnycky and Charles Recknagel
When Ukraine recently sold a famous dolphinarium to Iran, the deal looked like a simple purchase of performing animals. But now some observers are taking a second look. The reason: the animals' trainer is one of the world's experts in using dolphins for military purposes. RFE/RL correspondents Askold Krushelnycky and Charles Recknagel report.
Prague, 15 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "If I were a sadist, I would stay in Sevastopol." With those parting words, one of the former Soviet Union's foremost trainers of dolphins left Ukraine's Crimea this month for Iran, taking with him the contents of Sevastopol's famous oceanarium -- "Akvamarin."
Packed up and heading to Iran -- for an as yet undisclosed sales price -- were three Black Sea dolphins, several seals, two walruses, six sea lions, a white whale, and three aquatic birds that happened to be visiting Akvamarin on moving day.
The trainer -- Boris Zhuryd -- told reporters his dolphinarium could no longer support itself in Ukraine's troubled economy. While children flocked to the park to see the sea mammals perform, their pennies could no longer cover the costs of feeding the artists. As Zhuryd said, each dolphin alone eats some $120 worth of fish a month and medicine costs thousands of dollars. If the animals remained in Sevastopol, he said, they would starve to death.
Zhuryd said he advertised throughout the world for a suitable new home for his charges and Iran came up with the best offer. He also said the Iranians had built an aquatic zoo to his specifications on the Persian Gulf and that he and his human team were accompanying the animals to train Iranians in the skills needed to look after them properly.
But as soon as the band of pinnepeds and their trainers departed Ukraine, alarm bells went off in Moscow.
The reason: Boris Zhuryd is no ordinary fish trainer, but one of the former Soviet Union's most famous marine biologists. And much of his research has been into how the ocean's most intelligent inhabitants can be trained for military purposes, including sabotaging ships and laying mines.
The Russian newspaper "Komsomolskaya Pravda" announced the news of the sale under the headline "Sevastopol Dolphin-Saboteurs Have Been Enlisted in the Iranian Army." The paper also charged: "Iran has bought our former secret weapon from Ukraine on the cheap."
The report has started a controversy over the real identity of the dolphins Iran purchased. But so far, determining whether the dolphins are trained soldiers is difficult.
There are some facts which are not in dispute. One is that from the 1960s onwards the Soviet military did carry out experiments and research designed to train dolphins to carry out an array of military tasks. Dolphins with explosives strapped to them were to destroy enemy vessels in suicide missions. Others were intended to work as underwater sentries and capture enemy frogmen, while others were trained for rescue work.
Zhuryd, who was a submariner before graduating from a military medical academy, was one of the pioneers in the field and worked many years at a naval oceanarium in Vladivostok, on the Pacific Ocean.
But as the Soviet Union disintegrated there was no cash to continue the research and many sea animals were "privatized" to earn their keep as entertainers. The Russian paper reports that when military financing ended, Zhuryd moved his remaining animals from Vladivostok to Sevastopol in 1991 and opened his sea park.
Officials in Ukraine who know the sea park well say its sole purpose was to entertain the public and allow Zhuryd to continue studying sea mammals for their own sake.
RFE/RL spoke with a Ukrainian naval spokesman in Crimea, Captain Mykola Savchenko, who said the dolphins are not secret military personnel.
"This is a civilian dolphinarium and had no military purpose. These are dolphins that put on a show, an attraction. There are no more naval dolphins and these were not trained in military tasks. They were for a circus. It's a circus on water."
Savchenko confirmed that Zhuryd had once worked for the military but had stopped 10 years ago. He also said that sea beasts used to be trained for military purposes at another Crimean sea park which is now owned by the Ukrainian navy. But the animals there have long since been transferred from military to civilian duty, helping sick children.
"At the moment they have no military tasks set by the Ministry of Defense. They are not carrying out military tasks and have been transferred to civilian duties. They work with sick children. A special center has been created there for children that are ill."
Whether or not the dolphins Iran bought have any military use may be impossible to determine, and the debate over their identity is likely to continue. But some scientists believe the whole affair may be of little importance anyway, because dolphins have generally proved to be poor soldiers.
Marine biologist Anatoly Bezushko, who works at the military oceanarium in Crimea, says that although dolphins are intelligent and are equipped with nature's most efficient sonar, the military researchers did not have great success with their watery recruits.
As he put it: "Kamikaze dolphins work in movies, but not in real life."
Bezushko said dolphins do not like the shallow, murky type of water where they would have to carry out attacks on moored enemy ships or against frogmen. Still, dolphins have had some success locating sunken ships or broken oil pipelines and have even saved downed airmen.
(RFE/RL regional specialist William Samii and RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten also contributed to this report.)