the story of navy dolphins



The Navy's Marine Mammal Program began in 1960 with two goals. First, the Navy wanted to study the underwater sonar capabilities of dolphins and beluga whales to learn how to design more efficient methods of detecting objects underwater, and to improve the speed of their boats and submarines by researching how dolphins are able to swim so fast and dive so deep. In addition to this research component, the Navy also trained dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions and other marine mammals to perform various underwater tasks, including delivering equipment to divers underwater, locating and retrieving lost objects, guarding boats and submarines, and doing underwater surveillance using a camera held in their mouths. Dolphins were used for some of these tasks in the Vietnam War and in the Persian Gulf. The Marine Mammal Program was originally classified, and was at its peak during the Cold War. The Soviet Union's military was conducting similar research and training programs in the race to dominate the underwater front. At one point during the 1980's, the U.S. program had over 100 dolphins, as well as numerous sea lions and beluga whales, and an operating budget of $8 million dollars. By the 1990's, however, the Cold War was over, and the Navy's Marine Mammal project was downsized. In 1992, the program bec ame declassified. Many of the dolphins were retired, and controversy arose over whether or not it would be feasible to return unnecessary dolphins to the wild. ­Specific Tasks Navy marine mammals are trained to perform many underwater duties, including
  • Bottlenose dolphins detect and mark of underwater mines. The animal locates a mine and then deposits a weighted buoy line near the mine in order to mark it.
  • California sea lions attach grabber devices to underwater objects for retrieval. This system is used extensively in training exercises with divers for Explosive Ordnance Disposal units. Practice mines are placed on the sea floor; those not found by the divers during the exercise are retrieved by the sea lions.
  • Bottlenose dolphins are used to detect and defend against enemy swimmers. This procedure was used in both the Vietnam war and the Persian Gulf to protect Navy anchored vessels from enemy swimmers seeking to plant explosives. The dolphins would swim slowly, patroling the area with their sonar, and alert armed trainer guards if they located a swimmer. They are also trained to "tag" the enemy swimmer with a marker so that Navy personnel can apprehend him. During the Vietnam war, rumors circulated about a "swimmer nullification program" in which dolphins were also being trained to shoot at enemy swimmers with a device similar to the tagging device. The Navy denies that any such program existed or that any dolphin has ever been trained to attack a human.

1960'snavy begins use of marine mammals

1965sea lab II

In 1965, the Marine Mammal Program began its first military project: Sea Lab II. Working in the waters off La Jolla, California, a bottlenosed dolphin named Tuffy completed the first successful open ocean military exercise. He repeatedly dove 200 feet to the Sea Lab II installation, carrying mail and tools to navy personnel. He was also trained to guide lost divers to safety.

1965-75dolphins used in vietnam

The Navy sent five dolphins to Cam Ranh Bay to perform underwater surveillance and guard military boats from enemy swimmers. Although during this era rumors circulated about a "swimmer nullification program" through which dolphins were trained to attack and kill enemy swimmer, the Navy denies such a program ever existed.

1975introduction of sea lions and beluga whales

With the success of the dolphin program, the Navy began working with sea lions, training them to recover military hardware or weaponry fired and dropped in the ocean. The sea lions could dive and recover objects at depths of up to 650 feet.

The Navy also began exploring the use of beluga whales, which, like dolphins, use sonar to navigate. Beluga whales could operate at much colder temperatures and deeper depths than either dolphins or sea lions.

1965-75navy builds up collection of dolphins

The Marine Mammal Program reached its heyday in the 1980's, with an expanded budget and increased number of dolphins. In 1986, Congress partially repealed the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act by letting the Navy collect wild dolphins from for "national defense purposes." The Navy planned to use the dolphins to expand its mine disposal units and to stock a breeding program.

1986-88dolphins in the persian gulf

The navy sent six dolphins to the Persian Gulf, where they patrolled the harbor in Bahrain to protect US flagships from enemy swimmers and mines, and escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers through potentially dangerous waters. One of the dolphins, "Skippy," died of a bacterial infection.

1986-88missile guarding project in bangor abandoned

In the late 1980's the Navy began a project through which dolphins would act as guards at the Bangor Washington Trident Missile Base. Animal activists opposed the project, and filed suit against the Navy under the National Environmental Protection Act claiming that the Navy must do an environmental evaluation to determine whether deployment in the cold northern waters off Bangor would harm dolphins originally captured in the Gulf of Mexico. A judge ruled that such a study must be completed before the project could continue. The Navy abandoned the project.

By 1994, the Navy policy on moving dolphins to environments with radically different water temperatures changed; a spokesperson said that in general, the Navy would only move dolphins between environments with a 20 degree difference in temperature, except in emergency situations.

1990sdownsizing, declassification, retirement

With the end of the Cold War, the Navy's budget for the marine mammal program was drastically reduced, and all but one of its training centers were closed down. Of the 103 dolphins remaining in the program, the Navy decided it needed only 70 to maintain its downsized operations. Much of the project was declassified, although certain details remain protected.

This raised the question of what to do with the remaining dolphins. In the 1992 Defense Appropriations Act, Congress alloted a half million dollars to the Navy to "to develop training procedures which will allow mammals which are no longer required for this project to be released into their natural habitat." The Navy held two conferences of researchers and experts and determined that a reintroduction program would not be cost effective.

In an attempt to downsize its dolphin troops, the Navy offered to give its surplus trained dolphins to marine parks. However, interest in the free dolphins was low because many marine parks by this time had developed successful in-house breeding programs. The Navy only got only four requests, but pledged to care for the unclaimed dolphins until their deaths.

Later in 1994, the Navy agreed to send three dolphins to Sugarloaf sanctuary, near Key West in Florida, a rehabilitation facility run by Ric O'Barry. O'Barry planned to reeducate the dolphins so they could be safely released into the wild, once the necessary federal permits were granted.

1996illegal release of Luther and Buck

Two of the dolphins being held at the Sugarloaf Sanctuary, Luther and Buck, were being prepared for life in the wild while awaiting federal permits for their release. In May, before the permits had been issued, O'Barry released the dolphins into the Gulf of Mexico. He believed that the dolphins were ready for release and that the bureaucratric requirements for a permit were designed to prevent the release of the Navy dolphins. He thought that to wait any longer before letting them go would jeopardize their chances of successful adaptation to the wild.

read O'Barry's defense of his actions, and criticism of the release from Naomi Rose

The dolphins were recaptured less than two weeks later and returned to the Navy. All three of these dolphins are now back with the Navy. One of them is still in Florida;the other two are back in San Diego in the Navy facility there.

1997 Ukrainian dolphins trained by the Soviet Navy for military operations are now being used for therapy with autistic and emotionally disturbed children.




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