A History of Dolphins in the Navy

February 3, 2023
A History of Dolphins in the Navy

Dolphins are not only incredibly smart, but literally built for speed under the water. Credit: wearethemighty.com.

In April of this year, fishermen from the northeastern Norwegian hamlet of Tufjord watched as a beluga whale frolicked in the harbor.

As they neared the mammal, they noticed a harness outfitted with mounts for GoPro-type cameras and the words “Equipment St. Petersburg.”

Norwegian officials think the whale had been trained by the Russian Navy; they also report that Russian authorities will not comment on the incident.

One thing is for certain – the whale was not wearing the harness to record his own home videos.

This incident underscores the use of animals – from pigeons, elephants and bees to dogs, horses and camels – by militaries throughout history. 

The use also has a history, and some of that history was made during the Cold War.

The Cold War and Dolphins

The struggle between the United States and the former Soviet Union was contested on many fronts, one of which was the world’s seas.

To meet the challenge, in 1960 the United States Navy created the Marine Mammal Program.  A significant part of its classified mission was to work with bottlenose dolphins to learn more about their ability to navigate and their nautically perfect body shape.

Dolphins Can Find You

Dolphins Can Find You

The Navy wanted to understand the dolphins’ bio sonar, its radar-like ability to send out a series of sounds that bounce off objects in its surrounding environment. 

They interpret the return echoes and form an acoustic picture of their environment, an ability called “echolocation.”

John Ismay, a former Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer and current writer for The New York Times, characterized this succinctly in an April 30th article.

“Dolphins produce sonar waves from their foreheads, and they can quickly locate things that humans cannot…. The dolphins “see” enemy frogmen by sensing sound waves bouncing off the hard calcium deposits in human bones and can sense mines buried by mud and silt on the seafloor by sensing the air void inside the mine’s casing.“

Dolphins in the Navy: An Engineer’s Dream

Ships and submarines cannot move as quickly or efficiently through water as an airplane does through air. This is because the water and the mass of the ship create more drag than air does.

In contrast, a dolphin’s body has a shape which defies drag. It starts at the tip of its snout and tapers back to its tail; thus creating the perfect form for moving through the water.  

As an added feature, when a dolphin dives its lungs partially collapse, thereby minimizing buoyancy while conserving energy and oxygen.

This led naval engineers to incorporate some of the dolphins’ body characteristics into the construction of its ships and submarines.

But what integrates the dolphins’ sonar capabilities and use of its body is its keen mind.

Dolphins in the Navy: The IQ Factor

Dolphins in the Navy: The IQ Factor

No one knows just how smart dolphins are, but astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan once observed:

“It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English – up to fifty words used in correct context – no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.“

Through positive reinforcement with food and affection, dolphins are trained to identify specific types of targets. 

Through the use of a transducer that emits certain sound tones into the water, sailors can signal to the dolphin(s) that it is time to search. Once the dolphin has found its target, it returns to a craft and navy personnel take over.

Dolphins can also deliver equipment to divers, locate and retrieve lost objects, locate mines, guard boats, and conduct underwater surveillance with a camera held in its mouth or attached to their dorsal fin.

In this capacity, dolphins served in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars.  At the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, dolphin-led operations cleared the Iraqi port of Umm Qasar of over 100 mines.

What dolphins do not do is kill.

“That’s a common misunderstanding,” continued Ismay.  “Their mission is simply to find and mark things, and then exit the area as quickly as possible; there are no weaponized dolphins.”

Taking a Bow; Giving a Bow

When a dolphin jumps clear of the water and splashes down, that act is called a “bow.”

Given their remarkable service from the Cold War to the present, perhaps we should proverbially bow in recognition of the dolphins in the Navy, and their remarkable service.

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