Since 1959, the US Navy has trained a group of bottlenose dolphins and sea lions to perform vital tasks such as recovering lost equipment, intercepting intruders in ports, and detecting buried sea mines. These marine mammals are trained to perform these tasks because their biological abilities make them unique in their capacity to navigate the ocean and locate objects that electronic sonar might miss, like mines or lost weapons. The whiskered sea lion has an extraordinary sense of directional hearing, and the bottlenose dolphin is born with biological sonar to navigate and find food. Navy personnel reward them with food to train them to use these abilities to perform specific tasks.
While the Navy is incorporating unmanned underwater vehicles such as the Mk 18 Mod 1 Swordfish and Mk 18 Mod 2 Kingfish, which have sensors that sweep for mines and navigational hazards, the technology has not yet equaled the unique ability of the dolphins to locate mines. This is why Congress used the 2023 defense bill to prevent the Navy from ending the use of its mine-detecting dolphins or ending port-security training for its marine mammals until it deploys new mine-countermeasure systems that are as good or better than the dolphins.
The marine mammals work as a Marine Mammal System and train with divers or explosive ordnance disposal technicians and equipment for one of three missions: object recovery system, intruder interdiction, and mine countermeasures. The Marine Mammal Program’s budget for 2023 provides $40 million, with about $21 million covering “food, medicine, veterinary care, husbandry, and facilities” for the program’s 77 dolphins and 47 sea lions.
The use of these marine mammals to detect and counter mines has proven effective in several areas such as the Gulf War in 1991, where several US warships were severely damaged by Iraqi mines. In recent years, the proliferation of high-quality, relatively inexpensive drones means that the Navy’s dolphins and sea lions may soon be deactivated. Still, for now, they remain a part of the service’s mine-countermeasures systems, alongside ships, helicopters, sonars, and mobile explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams.
The Navy has spent years researching and studying dolphins’ natural sonar to glean lessons that might improve electronic sonar and signal processing. They have also led to more than 1,200 scientific papers and parallel research efforts, many funded by the Navy. While the program’s cost is debated, few question the marine mammals’ capabilities. They offer a lot at a relatively low cost, making it absurd not to continue using them, particularly in the near-term.
The use of dolphins and sea lions by the US Navy has been instrumental in protecting its ships, harbors, and ports from enemy mines and intruders. These marine mammals are capable of performing tasks that technology has not yet matched. While the Navy is incorporating new technologies, the use of these marine mammals remains an affordable option to protect ships, harbors, and ports until better tech is operational.