U.S. Navy’s history of training marine mammals for service purposes

FOUNTAIN VALLEY—A beluga whale has showed up in bizarre headlines across the nation for its connection to Russia and also for its kindness — the whale recently, off Norway’s coast, retrieved a mobile phone for a woman who had dropped it into the ocean. As alarming, inhumane and shocked as it may seem, there’s an even more unusual thread that ties this in with military marine animals: The United States also uses these creatures for service purposes.

On the United States Navy website, there is a section exclusively devoted to the marine mammals who serve our country. Canine units and military members rely on dogs for various tasks, and as it turns out the U.S. Navy has had aquatic species perform specific tasks as well.

The website states, “Everyone is familiar with security patrol dogs, and how some service dogs use their keen sense of smell to detect explosives on land. Since 1959, the U.S. Navy has trained dolphins and sea lions as teammates for our Sailors and Marines to help guard against similar threats underwater. The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program has been homeported on Point Loma since the 1960’s.”

Dolphins, according to multiple studies, are considered one of the most intelligent animals in the ocean. These animals, just like their four-legged counterparts, are trained for purposed such as rescuing naval swimmers or locating underwater mines. It’s not just dolphins either – remember those pesky sea lions that have become a nuisance to California’s coastline? They also join the ranks of naval dolphins recovering lost objects and assisting military personnel.

“In the early years of the program, more than a dozen different species of marine mammals, as well as sharks, rays, sea turtles, and marine birds were tested, and their sensory and physical capabilities explored,” continued the website.

Today, bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions are the primary species trained due to their “trainability” and “adaptability to a wide range of marine environments.”

Why are these animals used instead of human divers? One reason, the Navy’s website continues, is that dolphins have a sophisticated sonar system that allows them to collect mines and other dangerous items. Both dolphins and sea lions also have “excellent low light vision” and do not get decompression sickness (“the bends”), a danger to humans.

Allegedly it was announced dolphins would be replaced by underwater robots in 2017. However, the transition has not been made yet.

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