US Navy leads the way

Mammal research is still a fairly new endeavor. Although we’ve been fascinated by these animals for thousands of years, it wasn’t until approximately the 1940’s that research in the field of marine mammals really began. While there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of research projects currently being conducted on dolphins, the largest know project is the program that was undertaken by the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, the Navy has yet to release much information regarding their findings.

The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Research Program started to work with dolphins in the late 1950’s to analyze hydrodynamics and sonar. The hope was that dolphins could be trained to locate and retrieve lost objects from the ocean using their sonar. In the early 1960’s, John Ci. Lilly and several other scientists discovered that dolphins possessed an intelligence level they believed was second only to that of man and that dolphins could learn to complete tasks quickly and efficiently. It was at this point in time that the Navy launched what was supposed to be “secret” research on the dolphin.

Over the next 29 years, the U.S. Navy supposedly had over 240 dolphins in their research program. The types of dolphins included Atlantic Bottlenose and Pacific Whitenose as well as Beluga, Killer and Pilot Whales. For over 4 years, from 1965 to 1969, the Navy used acoustic signals to give commands to the dolphins who were then rewarded with fish. It was said that the dolphins were soon taught to retrieve mines even more efficiently than Navy divers. In a “top secret operation”, Six Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins were airlifted by the Navy to the Persian Gulf in 1987 where they were used to detect missiles and mines as well as for underwater surveillance. In 1988, trainers who had been working with the dolpins on the Navy project came forward with claims of abuse and neglect of the dolphins under the Navy’s care. Despite these claims, the Navy Research Program continued. Since that time, the Navy has admitted the dolphins were also present in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War.

The number of dolphins currently involved in the Navy program at bases in Hawaii, San Diego and Key West are said to total at least 130. The Navy employs Marine Mammal Productions Inc. to catch and transport the animals. They are sent to Seaco Inc. in San Diego, California for their initial training and then deployed to the various bases.

Experts believe that the Navy research is now focused on the possibility that a dolphin can use their echolocation to detect long range nuclear missles. While evidence suggests that the Navy program spent over $30 million on its dolphin program during the Reagan administration alone, very little information has actually been provided to the public.

Dolphin research (especially in the wild) remains an extremely difficult and expensive undertaking. The majority of the reseach conducted by independent and nonprofit organizations is completed with dolphins in captivity. Since most researchers state that dolphin behavior is extremely adaptive, it seems that the results of this type of research are not really indicative of dolphins in the wild.




Thomas I. White. In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

John M. Kistler. Animals in the Military: From Hannibal’s Elephants to the Dolphins of the U.S. Navy: From Hannibal’s Elephants to the Dolphins of the U.S. Navy. ABC-CLIO, 2011.

Judith Janda Presnall. In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier. Learning Island.



Pin It on Pinterest

Share This