The US Navy trains Sea Lions, Dolphins, and Sea Lions to protect sensitive hardware

  • Since the 1960s, the US Navy has been training sea lions and dolphins to detect underwater threats.
  • The Navy wants to shift away from its marine mammals and instead use drones and other sensors.
  • But dolphins and sea lions still have the ability to do their jobs better with this new technology.

Since 1959, the US Navy trained a small group of bottlenose dolphins (and sea lions) to find lost equipment, intercept criminals in ports, and locate buried sea mines.

This year, the Navy sought to end one of those marine mammals’ most important missions — hunting for and neutralizing mines buried in the seabed — and use sophisticated underwater vehicles and sensors instead.

But there is a problem. This technology hasn’t yet been able to match the dolphin’s unique ability find mines.

So Congress rebuffed and used the 2023 defense bill as a bar to the Navy from retiring mine-detecting dolphins and ending port-security training for marine mammals. Until then, it will deploy new mine-countermeasures that are equally good or better.

Navy trainer with a marine mammal sea lion

A US Navy trainer with a Mark 5 Marine Mammal Sea Lion in Key West, October 1990

US Navy/PH1 (Ac) Scott M. Allen

Congress stops the long-planned retirement Marine Mammal SystemsThe Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific at Point Loma Naval Base, San Diego, runs the program.

The proliferation of high-quality, inexpensive drones means that Navy’s dolphins or sea lions could soon be deactivated. However, they are still part of the mine-countermeasures system of the service, along with ships, sonars and mobile explosive disposal (EOD), teams.

The Navy’s mine-countermeasures force continues to strugglewith aging equipment and is already including unmanned underwater vehicles like the Mk 18 Mod 1 Swordfish or Mk 18 Mod 2 Kingfish. These have sensors that scan for mines and other navigational hazards.

Darian Wilson, a spokesperson at NIWC Pacific, said that it may become possible to complete these missions with underwater robots one day, but for now technology cannot do all the things animals can.

How it all began

Dolphin performance Marineland Florida

Dolphins perform at Marineland, near Daytona Beach, Florida in 1959.

Erich Andres/United Archives via Getty Images

The first oceanarium with dolphin showsIn 1938, the St. Augustine, Florida opening featured dolphins performing tricks with fish-toting trainers.

This attracted the Navy’s attention. It began working with mammals in 1959 for mine-countermeasure missions. A few years later, the Marine Mammal Program was established. The program started with sharks and rays and sea turtles but ended up focusing on sea lions and dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphins were born with a biological sonar. This sonar allows them to navigate and find food. Navy personnel train them to use the sonar to locate objects that the electronic sonar might miss. This includes mines, enemy swimmers, and lost weapons. The whiskered sea lion is able to see well and has exceptional directional hearing. It can also locate food, or, with Navy training to help, find human intruders or mines in the most murky waters.

Both are deep divers and can be seen often at the surface. Sea lions can dived 900 feetA number of trained bottlenose dolphins have scuba dived. more than 1,000 feetAccording to SeaWorld and the Dolphin Research Center, it is approximately.

That’s nearly seven times deeper than most humans can comfortably do with basic scuba gear — without suffering decompression sickness. They can also zip through dense kelp bed, underwater obstacles and crowded harbors.

Navy Sea Lion

A US Navy sea lion attaches an equipment recovery line to a piece.

US Navy

Wilson said that the budget for Navy Marine Mammal Program 2023 includes $40 million for “food and medicine, veterinary treatment, husbandry and facilities”. Just over half of that — about $21 million — covers care and feeding for the program’s 77 dolphins and 47 sea lions. The program employs 54 Navy civilians, six Army veterinarians, and 220 contractors. 22 graduate students or undergraduate volunteer are also part of the program.

Wilson stated that the dolphins and sea lions are part of the Marine Mammal System. They train with divers and explosive ordnance disposal technicians.

The MK 5 MMS “object Recovery System” is sea lions that attach recovery lines and locate Navy equipment. This includes a diver’s drop tool or a training min that can be pulled out of the water. It currently has a budget of $1 million, about half the amount required for equipment and personnel.

The MK6 MMS “intruder-interdiction” system is dolphins/sea lions that work together with security personnel to capture and arrest unauthorized swimmers and divers that could pose a threat to ships, ports, or people. Security sailors then capture the intruders, who are then tapped by the mammals. The current budget funds it completely at approximately $7 million.

The MK7 MMS “mine countermeasures” dolphins work with EOD teams to locate and mark mines. The dolphin drops a mark near a suspected mine. EOD personnel, or an unmanned system, then neutralize the marker. The Navy planned to fund it with about $3.5 million for 2022 — half of what’s needed. The Navy cannot eliminate its funding next fiscal year by implementing the 2023 defense bill.

Navy marine mammal dolphin Persian Gulf

A Mark 6 swimmer-defense dolphin found in the Persian Gulf in August 2003.

Veronica Birmingham, US Navy/PH2

The program’s budget includes approximately $3 million for research on bioacoustics, which aims to understand how sound affects marine mammals. Wilson stated that the program will continue to study dolphin’s natural sonar in order to learn lessons that could improve electronic sonar processing.

The program has produced more than 1,200 scientific papers. Parallel research efforts, many of which were funded by the Navy have shed light on dolphins’ built-in sonar abilities and helped work on electronic sonar that is critical to modern naval warfare.

The Navy is one military force that has marine mammal programs. (Notably, Russia has also used trained dolphinsGuarding important naval facilities. The US sent sea lions and dolphins to Vietnam in 1970 to hunt for mines. In 1987, dolphins were deployed to Bahrain to guard ships.

Two US Navy dolphins were accidentally discovered by the Navy. They patrolled major public events and contributed safety to the public. a rare, 130-year-old torpedoWhile training in 2013, I was buried off Coronado.

Navy Marine Mammal Program dolphin

A US Navy marine mammal trainer accompanied by a dolphin at Naval Air Station Key West on April 2017.

US Navy/Trice Denny

Kaj Larsen, a former Navy SEAL said that he will never forget the moment a dolphin rammed him underwater.

Larsen, who was 20 years old when he first witnessed Flipper’s fury during the dive phase of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course, said that it is one of the best ways to prevent combat divers from attacking.

BUD/S students doubled their combat-swimmer missions anti-combat-swimmer training for the dolphins. Combat divers learn to defeat sonarnets, but there is no way to defeat a dolphin. Larsen stated, “They find you underwater every time.”

However, other than brief public statements, real-world missions of the mammals remain classified.

Wilson said that the Marine Mammal Program is not normally discussed or released operational details. He cited security concerns and did not make any program officials or trainers available for interviews.

Mine threats remain

Iran Persian Gulf Strait of Hormuz sea mine US Navy

A US Navy boarding team inspects mines on an Iranian vessel in the Persian Gulf in September 1987.

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

The most common and powerful sea mines are still widely used, especially the cheap ones. They can be floating free, tethered below the surface, or hidden under the seafloor.

Scott Truver (a researcher, author and mine-warfare specialist) said that 15 of the 19 US ships that were destroyed or sunk in enemy mines attacks since the end of World War II, were in shallow water. Several US warships were severely damaged during the long Gulf War of 1991.

Iran has threatened to invade the United States in recent years. use its arsenal of mines to haltThe appearance of vital oil shipments to the Persian Gulf and mines in the Black SeaShipping disruptions were caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The program is still affordable for protecting ships, harbors and ports until better tech becomes available, according to those familiar with it. Truver stated that the cost of the program is “pixie dust” compared to what we spend on an aircraft carrier.

Truver stated, “The country needs the ability to deal with buried miners,” especially as the mine threat increases. “Houthi rebels can make us miserable, not to mention Russia and the likes.”

Navy amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli mine damage

Crews inspect the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli, after it struck an Iraqi Mine in the Persian Gulf on February 18, 1991.

US Navy/JO1 Gawlowicz

Truver stated that China’s navy regularly trains using sophisticated mines. Truver also said that the number of mines available for deployment has increased over the past 10 years.

While opinions may differ on the program’s cost but few doubt the abilities of the marine mammals, there are no doubts about its effectiveness. It is infinimally small [budget]This is in comparison to what has been and will continue to be spent on a variety other types technology,” Scott Savitz (a senior engineer at Rand Corporation), a nonpartisan think tank.

Savitz said that marine mammals “offer so many at a relatively low price that it seems absurd to not continue using them, at least in the near-term.”

The Navy expected advanced UUVs with side-scanning sonars to make marine mammals obsolete. But technology hasn’t progressed to that point. “We’re five years away” from supposedly being able to eliminate the need for the mammals. Savitz, who has worked with unmanned surface vehicles and undersea vessels, said that it is not clear if we are at that point yet.

Truver said that the Mk 18 Kingfish “has proven to be spectacular, but it still cannot do what a portion if what the mine-warfare Navy considers important for underground mines, for instance.”

Navy mine countermeasures unmanned undersea vehicle UUV drone

A Mk 18 Mod 2 Ultraviolet during a mine countermeasures exercise in June 2019 in the Baltic Sea

US Navy/Chief Mass Comm Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe

Savitz stated that dolphins and sea-lions can detect and engage objects faster than other technologies. When they find a mine, the mammals simply tap on the paddles to alert EOD handlers or their trainers.

“They are able distinguish objects that look similar to mines or even mines from the vast amount of debris that is on seafloors in populated areas,” Savitz explained, calling it “an exceptional capability that’s able overcome many environmental challenges.”

Savitz said that dolphins “have not difficulty” working in strong currents. This is something battery-operated devices may have trouble with. He said that dolphins are just like dogs in the search for drugs and explosives. It is a good idea to rely on their natural abilities. “We don’t have to reinvent something that we already know how to do.” [for] already.”

Lifetime front-line support

Navy Air Force dolphins C-17 Globemaster

Navy dolphins aboard a C-17 aircraft on route to New Caledonia, November 2009.

Tech. US Air Force Sgt. Cohen A. Young

Wilson stated that the dolphins and sea-lions have their home base at Point Loma and three other bases in San Diego Bay. Wilson also mentioned other key Navy ports. They are often deployed on ships and aircraft to carry out exercises or missions overseas, just like seagoing sailors.

Officials state that the animals aren’t kept captive. They are allowed to leave their pens almost every day and can swim away from trainers. It is not unusual for dolphins to swim up to boaters seeking fishy treats.

A standing Secretary of Navy declared that “They receive the best-quality care available anywhere in this world.” instructionWilson agreed. They spend their days exploring the bay here in San Diego, or further offshore, in Puget Sound, up north, and when not working, they’re at their home socializing with their friends.”

Navy Marine Mammal Program California sea lion

A US Navy sea-lion jumps into a command boat for riverine operations during a mine countermeasures exercise in Bahrain in November 2014.

US Navy/MCS1 Kathleen Gorby

Releasing dolphins raised in captivity — where their lifespan is usually 40 to 60 years — is a contentious issue; in the past, such dolphins have died after being introduced to the wild. The Navy will continue to keep the mammals in captivity if the program ends.

Wilson stated, “The Navy is committed in caring for our animals for their entire lives.” “As our animals get older, the number of animals will continue decreasing.” Wilson said. We usually lose one to two marine mammals each year due to natural causes. We have never seen an animal die in combat.

Dolphins are “highly advanced” and “are perfect” for their mission, said Richard “Ric” O’Barry, an animal trainer-turned-activist and author known for his work in the 2009 documentary “The Cove.”

O’Barry stated that “Their sonar makes the Navy’s best sonar systems” look like “a toys”. “That’s the reason they were conscripted into Navy.”

navy dolphins

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey is the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff at the marine mammal center in San Diego in February 2012.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Scott/US Navy

O’Barry, a former Navy diver, worked for Miami Seaquarium for ten years. Five dolphins were captured by O’Barry for the Navy on his first day. He said, “I didn’t question the orders.” “It seemed like a great way to have fun.”

He was a trainer for dolphins in 1960s TV program “Flipper”, before he began to question captivity. He was fined by another activist in 1996 for releasing two Navy dolphins into a marine park.

O’Barry, aged 83, is still active in a rescue dolphin sanctuaryThree dolphins that were once held captive in West Bali were rescued and released in September. He believes that it’s time the Navy retired the mammals.

“I like the Navy. “I’ve spent five years of my most important years in Navy,” he stated. “But I don’t like the Navy’s work with dolphins.”

Gidget Fuentes, a freelance writer, is based in Southern California. He has extensive reporting on the military, including the Marine Corps and the Navy, as well as Pacific regional issues. Follow Gidget on Twitter.

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