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May 14, 2008 > TechKnow Talk: Does the Navy use Trained Dolphins?

TechKnow Talk: Does the Navy use Trained Dolphins?

Silently, the Navy diver slips over the side of the raft, pulling the marker buoy behind him. Swimming through the murky waters of the harbor, he easily locates his target, a deadly mine suspended in the water ahead. The countless training missions have paid off. Working quickly, he loops the marker rope around the mine and returns to the raft.

Halfway around the world, a diver on routine underwater patrol suddenly sees a man swimming toward the ship. Moving in before the other diver knows he has been spotted he quickly slips a shackle-like clamp attached to a cable around the leg of the "unfriendly" and races back to the ship to inform his superiors. This will allow the intruder to be pulled to the surface and apprehended.

Both of these scenarios are real, and in both cases the Navy diver is a dolphin. The U.S. Navy has been training marine mammals to perform underwater tasks since the 1960s. They began working with these animals in 1959 to study their shapes and movements as an aid to designing torpedoes and submarines. But their intelligence, reliability, eagerness to please, and swimming and diving skills were soon recognized; the program shifted to training the animals to take a more active role.

Originally, the Navy worked with several types of whales, as well as sea lions, seals, and dolphins. The most useful animals were found to be the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin and the California sea lion. These are the only two species in the employ of the military today, which trains them at the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, CA.

Dolphins and sea lions have a number of advantages over human divers. First, they possess an amazing ability to locate objects in dark, murky waters. Dolphins are gifted with an incredible natural sonar (biosonar) system known as "echolocation." The dolphin emits a sequence of clicking noises that reflects from objects in the water. From these reflected sounds, it is able to construct a three-dimensional image of the space around it. Sea lions lack sonar, but have excellent hearing and outstanding eyesight in dim conditions, making them ideal for locating objects on the ocean floor.

In addition, both dolphins and sea lions are able to dive deeply and repeatedly. In comparison, a human diver is extremely slow and awkward, requires a great deal of equipment and support resources, and is subject to the effects of decompression sickness, often called "the bends." The Navy claims a rubber raft carrying two sailors and a trained sea lion can locate objects on the ocean floor as quickly and efficiently as a ship with full crew supporting a team of human divers.

These skills have led to a number of missions. The Navy uses unarmed test equipment to perform various maneuvers and exercises. This expensive hardware may be launched overboard or dropped from planes. Such equipment is often outfitted with a "pinger" to emit an audible signal. Sea lions are dispatched to use their sensitive hearing and sight to locate these items on the ocean floor, as deep as 500 feet or more. The sea lions are trained to attach a special device trailing a cable, allowing the hardware to be pulled to the surface and recovered for reuse.

Similar techniques are used to help sweep an area of mines resting on the ocean bottom. While these devices emit no sound, the sea lions may be trained to employ their keen eyesight to seek specific shapes associated with such mines.

Taking advantage of their spectacular biosonar, dolphins are used to locate mines tethered to anchors and floating under the surface of the water. These intelligent creatures are able to quickly identify a wide range of objects, and can easily distinguish between mines and other objects, even in dark waters cluttered with ships, equipment, and other debris. Once a mine is located, the dolphin marks it and reports back to its handlers.

Finally, both sea lions and dolphins are used to patrol Naval assets, whether a coastal military installation, a fleet anchored in a harbor, or an operation in the open ocean. These animals are trained to watch for human swimmers and divers and either warn their human handlers or take more direct action, such as attaching a marker or cable to the intruder.

Most of these mission types have been operational since the 1970s. Dolphins patrolled around Naval vessels and other assets during the Vietnam War in the 1970s and during the Gulf War in the 1980s. They were also used to clear mines from the Umm Qasr harbor in support of the current war in Iraq, and probably continue to patrol Persian Gulf ports today.

The Navy's dolphins are also occasionally used to protect civilians here in the U.S. They patrolled San Diego Bay during the 1996 Republican National Convention there. Marine mammals may currently be helping to protect some of our most important coastal assets from underwater terrorist attack.

Various animal rights groups have criticized the Navy's marine mammal program over the years. Some have speculated that animals are trained to carry out suicide missions or placed in other dangerous situations. The Navy denies these charges, claiming the animals are given no offensive missions and are never placed in danger or mistreated. The Navy points to the fact that it is bound by all the same laws and regulations that require humane treatment of animals in zoos, aquariums, and other captive situations.

The Navy breeds its dolphins, and has not taken a dolphin from the wild since 1988. This has proven to be a great aid in training, as the young dolphins tend to imitate their parents and other adults and learn their lessons very quickly. There are currently about 100 animals in the program.

The Navy also conducts extensive research in such areas as the effect of human-generated noise on marine mammals, the biosonar capabilities of dolphins, captive breeding programs, vaccinations and disease control, and other health-related fields. In fact, the U.S. Navy has published more marine mammal research than any other organization or university in the world.

But ultimately the Navy would like to terminate its marine mammal program and use technology to replace the animals. For example, they are making significant strides in building devices that replicate the biosonar skills of dolphins. They are also working on remote imaging systems to mimic the sea lion's ability to scan the ocean floor for mines. But for now, these machines cannot match the natural skills of the animals.

The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program was classified until the early 1990s, when its history and current activities were revealed. The Soviet Navy had a similar Cold War program, beginning in the 1960s. Originally focused on dolphin patrols, it expanded into search and recovery operations as well. There are conflicting reports as to whether the program survived the demise of the Soviet Union.

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