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24 Apr, 2010 06:32

Talented Oceanarium inhabitants with navy past in Russia’s North

Ice-free Murmansk Arctic port is a strategically-important base for the Russian Navy. And even the local Oceanarium used to be a laboratory where sea lions were studied and also trained for military tasks.

Nuclear-powered icebreakers and waters teeming with fish is not all that Murmansk has to offer.

The local Oceanarium is one of the top tourist attractions, with the sea lions the stars of the show. The performances there clearly demonstrate the sea lions’ impressive capabilities.

But 20 years ago it was all different. And even now, just a few miles away, the sea lions’ aptitude for learning is being put to a very different use.

“The Institute has been concerned with sea mammals for several decades now. We start at an early age, when the animals are still very young and can learn to work with humans easily,” says Dmitry Ishkulov, Deputy Director at Murmansk Marine Biological Institute. “The next stage is more specialized. We select animals to be trained for certain specific tasks. Aside from training them to patrol and survey water areas, they can carry video observation equipment. In practical terms it also means that sea mammals can be trained to work with the military.”

In fact the Institute has long experience in using seals for military purposes. 

During World War II, the training was top secret, with experimental techniques such as teaching the animals to survey nuclear submarines and protect ships.

Now the training is of a more peaceful nature.

“These days we are training them to examine underwater communication lines, such as oil and gas pipelines. They can examine ships, both surface vessels and subs. These particular operations serve to minimize diving costs because sea mammals don’t need decompression chambers or any specialized diving equipment,” Dmitry Ishkulov says.

Back at the Murmansk Oceanarium, the mammals’ skills are also being put to good use with groups of children from local hospitals and orphanages being regularly entertained by the lovable creatures.

Behind the scenes, a huge amount of time is spent with the animals preparing for the shows.

The animals there all have their own trainers to keep them fit and healthy and to teach them new tricks. Learning a trick can take from a few hours to a couple of months, depending on the complexity of the task and the skill of the animal.

For now they enjoy the applause, but having once been owned by the biological Institute, with close links still maintained with the Oceanarium, the sea lions could one day be called on to become some rather cute recruits.