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Careers bloom anew for former Soviet navy dolphins

Center for Defense Information - Russia Weekly

The Globe and Mail (Canada)

4th July 2002

Reuters News Agency


The end of the Soviet Union, the end of your career -- that's what many feared would be the case for Diana, Vakh and other elite navy recruits.

More than a decade ago, they guarded the Communist bloc's most strategic bay in Sevastopol, plunging into cold, deep waters to monitor mines and watch for enemy divers who might creep toward the Soviet Union's Black Sea Fleet.

Now the fleet is either rusting in dock or being destroyed; the threat of intruders has all but disappeared, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.

But Vakh and Diana, Black Sea dolphins, are still at work, using their highly trained minds to help children with problems ranging from nightmares to bed-wetting, autism to cerebral palsy.

The former military dolphins have proved a big hit.

Galina Stepanova travelled from near Russia's Ural Mountains to the medical centre in Ukraine's southern Crimea with her son Misha, who has cerebral palsy.

"This is only his second time swimming with the dolphins, and . . . it is an emotional response at the moment and he likes it very much," she said, as a shivering Misha nursed a cup of tea after his swim in the Black Sea.

Surrounded by huge ships in a small bay once closed off from the rest of Ukraine, the former top-secret military base has become a leading place for dolphin therapy, a controversial alternative technique to soothe certain ailments.

Each session costs $30 for Ukrainians and those from other former Soviet states. Others pay $80.

Oversubscribed and in need of a lick of paint, the centre still bears the stamp of naval authority; all the administrators are naval officers.

"Earlier, we researched their physiologies and their strength to help the Soviet Union's Black Sea Fleet. They used to be trained to look for sunken objects and defend the entrance to the bay," Lyudmila Lukina, head of science at the oceanarium, said in her small office, on wooden walkways above the choppy sea.

"But 10 years ago, when it all went wrong, we had to find a way to survive. We were no longer of any use to anyone. And we had to think what to do to save our dolphins."

Specialists at the centre dismiss as myth the notion held by some that the dolphins were used to kill. They say the creatures, which can live as long as 50 years in the wild, were mostly used to locate underwater mines and detect divers, relaying the information with signals.

Olga Smirnova says that in the old days, Diana, her dolphin charge of 24 years, was never sent on "nasty" missions; she was a searcher. Now, "she is specially trained to play with children, which she enjoys."

Alexander Zanin, director of another dolphinarium and former research institute along the coast from Kazachya Bay, says it is as easy to train the dolphins to paint pictures as it was to communicate the presence of the enemy.

It's a sentiment many of the therapy centre's employees agree with. They prefer the dolphins to be spending time with children: It makes a perfect work life for all.

"I am so lucky. I love children and working with dolphins I have loved all my life," Ms. Lukina said. "I have the greatest job."

Misha was uncertain at first, lying on a multicoloured mat on one of the rotting wooden jetties at the side of a dolphin pen. The trainer encouraged him to hold his hand just above the water so the dolphin could rub its nose on it.

In the water, Misha flailed his arms in panic, but soon a broad grin spread across his face as the dolphin swam close by for stroking.

"They focus the ultrasound on the child," Ms. Lukina said. "They can communicate with the patients. They respond to our signals with their ultrasound signals. We do not yet know how it works and are currently doing tests."

Many visitors have no doubt it works -- like the orphanage worker who brought six children with bed-wetting problems. "This is our third session, and for two nights their diapers were dry," Alla Shapoval said.


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