Dolphin Soldiers

I have to begin this post with two warnings. The first is the obligatory spoiler alert. If you haven’t seen the film, I may reveal some significant plot points. Second, if there is a heart in your chest, The Day of the Dolphin is likely to break it.

Day of the Dolphin movie poster

SEE leaping dolphins! SEE girls in bikinis! SEE George C. Scott… um… gesturing!

On a small private island, Dr. Jake Terrell, played by George C. Scott, is conducting research with a pair of dolphins, but the true nature of his research is a closely held secret. He has taught them to speak English. But dark forces are conspiring to turn this breakthrough in interspecies communication into a weapon. From the opening scenes, it is clear that this is not going to end well.

Dr. Terrell and Alfa

Alpha and his “Pa,” Dr. Terrell.

Although a work of fiction, The Day of the Dolphin is loosely based on real people and events. The character of Dr. Terrell is partially based on Dr. John Lilly, although Dr. Terrell does disparage the kind of invasive neurological experimentation “by other researchers,” in which the real-life Dr. Lilly engaged at one time. Dr. Lilly  failed to establish meaningful communication with his dolphin subjects, but his prediction that dolphins would have value to the military did come to pass.

Here’s a nice piece of vintage U.S. government propaganda:

In The Day of the Dolphin, dolphins are trained to attach explosives to ships. In reality, beginning in the 1960s the United States Navy trained dolphins to retrieve objects, like unexploded torpedoes. Dolphins were also used to assist in clearing mines. And during the Vietnam War, dolphins were used to neutralize enemy divers. According to the Navy, the dolphins did this by attaching a flotation device to the target, causing him to rise to the surface, where he could be captured. However, some former Navy trainers claim that more lethal means were also employed.

At the same time, the Soviet Union had its own military dolphin programs. (Some viewers may find some of this material disturbing.)

Both nations’ militaries continued using dolphins to one extent or another until the present time. And now, it appears that dolphins will be pressed into service again, as tensions between Russia and the Ukraine remain high.

The bleak message of The Day of the Dolphin is that, although scientific research may be conducted with idealistic intentions, the darker aspects of human nature will seek to pervert it for personal gain or to harm others.

For more about the U.S. Navy’s use of dolphins, see Blue Frontier by David Helvarg, Chapter 3 and War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz, Chapter 20.

You can take action by signing this petition.

Readers interested in current research into communication with dolphins–and in the wild, no less–would appreciate Dolphin Diaries by Dr. Denise Herzing.

Navy dolphin leaping in sea pen

How do we justify involving another species in our wars?


  1. I worked on Dr. Lilly’s JANUS (Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System) project. Work that was done *after* this film which came out in 1973. The work was more successful than most people know but has been forgotten/overlooked because of some of the experimentation Lilly had done earlier in is research into cetacean intelligence and communication with them and was vilified because of them.

    Lilly was the one who discovered Cetaceans are conscious breathers (meaning they must think to take a breath unlike humans) and invented a respirator for them so they could safely be anesthetized.

Speak Your Mind