Dolphins and the Marine Mammal Program

We’ve heard for years that Dolphins are incredibly intelligent creatures. It turns out that they are even intelligent enough to serve in the United States Navy, and have been doing so since 1960, when the Navy decided to study the underwater sonar capabilities of dolphins to learn how to design better methods of detecting objects underwater. The Navy also realized that they could learn how to improve the speed of their boats and submarines by studying how dolphins are able to swim fast and dive deep.

The research ended up going much further than that. Dolphins have been trained to perform several tasks, including delivering equipment to underwater personnel, locating and retrieving lost objects, and guarding boats and submarines. They have been trained to detect enemy swimmers, and this was used in both the Vietnam war, as well as the Persian Gulf war. The dolphins would patrol around the boats and subs, and use their natural sonar to alert their armed trainers when enemy swimmers were detected. They could even tag the enemy swimmer with a marker so their trainers could spot and apprehend them.

Dolphins even do underwater surveillance for the Navy, by holding cameras in their mouths. Dolphins have been used to detect and mark underwater mines as well. The dolphins are not injured during this, or any other Naval operation. These dolphins are true heroes that have been trained to lead lost divers to safety.

Navy dolphins.

A dolphin named KDog work in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq War /U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Brien Aho.

The Navy began their studies of dolphins in 1960, but the Marine Mammal Program did not begin it’s first military project until 1965. The first project was called Sea Lab II, and a dolphin named Tuffy was trained to dive 200 feet below the surface of the ocean off the coast of La Jolla, California, to deliver mail and tools to personnel.

The Marine Mammal Program has gone through many changes since 1965. From 1965 to 1975, Navy dolphins were used in the Vietnam war. During this time, the Navy was steadily building up a team of dolphins, and the program had over 100 dolphins at the most during the 1980’s. With the end of the Cold War in the 1980’s, the budget for the Marine Mammal Program was cut, however, between 1986 and 1988, six Navy dolphins were sent to the Persian Gulf to protect US flagships from enemy swimmers and mines. They also escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers through dangerous waters. In 1992, the program became declassified.

With the cutbacks, and the declassification of the program, the Navy explored the possibility of returning the dolphins to the wilds, but found that this would be a complicated process that would not be economically feasible. The Navy contacted several marine parks, but got few requests for the dolphins. In 1994, three of the dolphins were sent to a sanctuary near Key West, Florida. Two of the dolphins were released into the wilds by the owner of the sanctuary, without the proper permits, and this caused quite a bit of controversy. The dolphins were recaptured two weeks later, and all three dolphins were returned to the Navy. The Navy has assumed the care and responsibility for the dolphins for the rest of their natural lives.

The most recent use of Navy dolphins was during the war on terrorism, in Operation Enduring Freedom. Again, the Navy dolphins are used to guard ships against enemy swimmers, and locate and mark mines. The Navy uses whales and sea-lions in their programs as well.

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