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Dolphins in the Navy!

It is not uncommon to see security patrol dogs sniffing around a public space, using their sense of smell to detect potential hazards. It is much less likely that you have heard of bottlenose dolphins doing the same. That is what the United States Navy set out to accomplish when they started the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in 1959. The Navy considered several marine mammals to take part of their Marine Mammal Program, including sharks, stingrays, dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions, and marine birds. Eventually, dolphins and sea lions were selected as the best animals to participate in the program. The dolphins’ diving abilities, intelligence, and heightened senses made them great candidates to help the Navy in their underwater endeavors. In 1953, it was determined that dolphins would make amazing divers for the Navy’s they could complete tasks in the water quickly and untethered.

A bottlenose dolphin is tested during its Navy Marine Mammal Program training in San Diego, California (2012)

How does the Navy use dolphins?

The dolphin’s unique sonar and ability to dive deep allow them to preform useful tasks for the Navy, such as locating and marking objects in the water. The Navy trains their dolphins for 5 to 7 years to detect sea mines and other dangerous underwater objects. The dolphins report these findings to their trainers. After the dolphins use their echolocation to locate these objects and report them to their trainers, divers are dispatched to put a buoy in that area so Navy ships on missions can avoid them.

For a period, there were two military bases where the dolphins trained: one in San Diego and the other in Hawaii. Today, the dolphins are born and trained solely in Point Loma, California. The Navy selected dolphins because of their natural sophisticated internal sonars and their ability to dive deep without the risks that human divers face like suffering from the “bends”. They also selected sea lions for the project as they responded well to the type of training required in the program.

California Sea Lion in the Navy Marine Mammal Program awaits a command from its trainer in Manama, Bahrain (2019)

How do the dolphins travel for missions?

It is not unusual for dolphins in the Navy to have to be deployed to accomplish their tasks. The Navy transports the dolphins via cargo planes, trucks, and ships to reach their intended destination. While traveling on a plane or truck, the Navy trainers accompany the dolphins and put them into stretchers submerged in transportation containers filled with water. The stretcher keeps the dolphins in place for the journey, and the water-filled containers ensure the dolphins are comfortable and safe during their trip. When dolphins are transported by ship, they are put into large inflatable pools. The dolphin trainers always travel and monitor the dolphins on their journey, and a veterinarian will also accompany the dolphins on trips longer than two hours.

Are the dolphins well taken care of?

Although it may seem like the dolphins are constantly working hard for the Navy, they are treated extremely well! The Naval Marine Mammal Program abides by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act. The dolphins are checked on by their trainers for any health issues daily to ensure that they are not having any external or internal health issues.

The dolphins are trained through positive reinforcement with rewards like fish, toys, and pets from their trainers. The dolphins and their trainers become very close over the 5 to 7 year training period. Everyday the dolphins in the program are fed around 15 to 25 pounds of high quality fish, which is hand inspected and fed to them by their trainers. In between deployments, the dolphins live in 30 by 30 foot enclosures that are attached by gates. When the gates are open, the dolphins are able to swim in-between enclosures and socialize and play with other dolphins and sea lions in the facility.

Does the Navy still utilize dolphins today?

Believe it or not, the Navy Marine Mammal Program is still active in San Diego, California, today! The program was declassified by the military in the 1990s and the Navy now shares the missions of their trained marine mammals openly. You can even take a student volunteer guided walking tour of the facility where the dolphins are trained if you have base access. The trained dolphins and sea lions are still sent on missions around the world and have had over 1200 scientific studies published on their behavior since the beginning of the program!

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