Mammals in the Military: Navy Dolphins

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 27, 2012 12

In the future, will more animals be enlisted in navies around the world? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A squad of about 80 bottle-nosed dolphins is presently serving in the U.S. Navy. Some of these dolphins have been trained to find mines and mark their location by dropping an acoustic transponder. Human divers are then sent in to destroy the explosives.

Under the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, established more than 40 years ago and based in San Diego, California, dolphins and sea lions are trained to assist in military missions. The only other country to have had a similar, long-standing project has been Russia, which closed its marine mammal program in the early 1990s. In March 2000, however, the Russian Navy transferred their military dolphins to Iran, and the chief trainer has been carrying on his research there.

The U.S. Navy states that it has never trained “its marine mammals to harm or injure humans in any fashion or to carry weapons to destroy ships.” But with other countries now acquiring and training sea mammals, could the employment of animals in offensive battle roles be just around the corner?

Sea lions in the U.S. Navy use their superior underwater vision to detect enemy swimmers.

Enlisting dolphins

In 1960, the United States Navy implemented a program using dolphins and sea lions to help with defense and the design of new submarines and underwater weapons. Because of their highly evolved biosonar, bottlenose dolphins were enlisted to help find underwater mines, and sea lions were taught to use their impeccable underwater vision to detect enemy swimmers.

Dolphins were used in the First and Second Gulf Wars as minesweepers. A dolphin not only can distinguish between a nickel and a dime at a hundred yards—and among brass, aluminum and stainless steel, even when the metal is buried under two feet of mud—it can differentiate between natural and man-made objects.

A dolphin’s biosonar works by the animal’s generation of high-frequency clicking sounds, which pass through an area in its rounded forehead (known as the melon), a fat-rich organ that serves as an acoustical lens and focuses the sound like a beam. Sound bouncing off objects travels through the cavities of a dolphin’s lower jaw to the inner ear, which transmits the information to the brain by way of the auditory nerve.

Bottlenose dolphins have helped find underwater mines in active combat zones.

The military dolphins’ skills have saved the lives of countless U.S. Navy personnel. In March 2003, nine dolphins called Special Clearance Team One became the first marine mammals to take part in mine-clearing operations in an active combat situation. Together with Navy SEALS, Marine Corps reconnaissance swimmers, explosive ordnance disposal divers and unmanned undersea vehicles, they helped disarm more than 100 antiship mines and underwater booby traps planted in Umm Qasr’s port by Saddam Hussein’s forces.

Calling for a code

The navy believes that the risk dolphins take in their military operations is virtually zero because the animals are trained to stay a safe distance away from any mines they find. And sea mines are designed to explode only when a large metallic surface, such as the hull of a ship, passes nearby. The navy also points out that it hasn’t captured wild dolphins since 1999, when it began a captive dolphin-breeding program.

Still, the practice of using dolphins as minesweepers has its critics. The Connecticut-based Cetacean Society International condemns the use of marine mammals in a combat zone. It has issued a statement that it is “evil, unethical and immoral to use innocents in war because they cannot understand the purpose or the danger, their resistance is weak, and it is not their conflict.”

The U.S. Navy trains its dolphins to stay a safe distance away from any mines they find. Will other nations do the same? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

While the U.S. says it has not and does not use its marine mammals to carry weapons, will other countries establishing military marine mammal programs follow the same rule? Is an international code of ethics regarding the use of animals in armed forces in order?

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  1. Dr.Jagdish Mittal October 11, 2012 at 4:20 am - Reply

    I never herd about use of Dolphins by Navy persons. Thanks for information.There is a strong need for an International code.

  2. Debra C. October 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    Sickening! The military is as cruel as it gets – they have no compassion or concern for the lives of animals. What happened to the noble goal of PROTECTING lives? They seem to have switched to a goal of total domination over the world.

  3. Lori October 4, 2012 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Of course this is absolutely unacceptable. The Navy has been involved in some horrendous experiments on dolphins and whales as well. Also, they are currently training dogs to go out on independent squads in war torn areas. You heard right – groups of dogs – no humans – out on a mission – innocent targets.

  4. Samantha de Vos October 4, 2012 at 5:38 am - Reply

    I really didn’t know they used dolphins in the Navy. Thank you for sharing this. After reading the article my opinion is that we indeed need an international code.

  5. Vanessa October 4, 2012 at 5:37 am - Reply

    I find this totally unacceptable.

  6. James C. October 4, 2012 at 5:36 am - Reply

    In 1990, while serving in the Marine Corps, I came across one of these dolphins in Pearl Harbor. He seemed healthy, but he was contained in small pen (maybe 12×12) attached to the warf. He seemed like he wanted attention and wanted to play. I was sad for him because I knew he was in a training program that involved mines and explosives.

    I do not find this practice ethical because these intelligent and friendly animals do not understand the risk that the Navy has drafted them for.

  7. nasra aleem October 3, 2012 at 4:33 am - Reply

    An informative description about the role of marine mammals.How are these serving for their country at the cost of their lives without getting much!

  8. Anne R. September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am - Reply

    Its all very well developing an international code of ethics to protect marine mammals used in navies but who or what body is going to enforce this? It only needs one power-hungry tyrant to arise and countermand it.Who is going to prevent or punish him/her? Remember, most of the world is not a democracy.

  9. Ashley September 29, 2012 at 5:11 am - Reply

    I know that engineers have been looking to nature for ideas on how to improve objects and make them better, stronger, etc. I wonder if there are any looking into creating a small, unmanned submarine that can serve the military in the same manner as marine mammals. Society must have the technology capable of producing something such as this.

  10. Jeff September 28, 2012 at 9:37 am - Reply

    War never changes. Militaries have been using mammals for millennia – elephants, camels,, horses, dogs to name a few. I’m not advocating one way or another, but it is not a new topic. Humans must move beyond distrust and warfare for the sake of all life on planet earth.

  11. Ceres B. September 28, 2012 at 6:53 am - Reply

    I personally think that this is shocking and unacceptable! I do not agree with the use of any animal in warfare, armies, navies, etc… I don’t think it’s ethical to make other lives fight for us and for our problems and wars…

  12. Travis September 27, 2012 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    I have a little bit of morbid curiosity in me that is dying to see them with the proverbial laser mounted on their heads.

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