Have you seen them? Down by Ferry Landing, a dolphin suddenly appears and it’s wearing a harness. Or a sea lion splashes by the piers of Seaport Village, accompanied by a small boat with trainers and researchers.
What are they doing, and why?
Seeking answers to these questions, I attended a tour of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program facility, which is located on one of San Diego’s Navy bases. My guide was Katie, a young woman wearing a green hat that indicated her status as an advanced intern.
The Navy program trains and utilizes dolphins and sea lions just like they do military working dogs: to guard military areas, locate mines, and perform search and recovery missions for equipment and people.
Why would the Navy use dolphins instead of humans for these tasks? Dolphins are able to make repeated deep dives without experiencing decompression sickness. Dolphins and sea lions are also highly reliable, adaptable, and trainable, and they can learn to search for, detect, and mark objects in the water. Also, because dolphins can rest half their brain while maintaining consciousness with the other, they are able to work for long stretches of time, and their attention span and focus are invaluable to the U.S. Navy.
Back at the program headquarters, the dolphin pens are quiet until a dolphin suddenly leaps into the air, sparkling droplets of water following his silver body. The program’s meeting rooms and offices are housed in a Mediterranean-style building, and behind it a gangplank from the back deck leads down to a series of dolphin pens in the San Diego Bay. Wooden boardwalks frame and connect the pens, and each pen has underwater gates that can be opened so the dolphins can mingle with each other.
The pens are divided into sections: research dolphins, breeding dolphins, young dolphins in training, and the Navy’s working dolphins. There is a separate sea lion area further down the pier, but the focus of this tour was the dolphin areas.
A few of the older dolphins were caught in the wild many decades ago, but most of the animals were born into the program here in San Diego. After a 12-month gestation, the babies are born within a few weeks of each other so that they can grow up and be trained together. Currently the program has three six-month-old calves.
The dolphins begin their training around their second birthday. Because dolphins have a sensory system called echolocation, which is the ability to locate objects (such as underwater mines) via biological sonar, they are well-suited to the tasks they do for the Navy.
Both dolphins and sea lions are also trained for object marking and recovery. The two species sometimes work together. For example: a dolphin may locate a swimmer and come back to the boat, and then a sea lion will go out to tag the swimmer. He approaches an enemy swimmer with an open clamp in his mouth, and when he bumps into the swimmer, the clamp, which is attached to a line, closes around his leg, marking him on the ocean’s surface for Navy operators.
At home in San Diego, the marine mammals are typically trained through multiple sessions per day. Staff members also patrol the area at night and interact further with the animals. The marine mammals progress through their training over many years. When the dolphins and sea lions are ready to graduate, they take a test to become Navy certified.
After graduation, some of the animals remain in San Diego while others move on to Bangor, WA, and King’s Bay, GA. These crews provide coverage at those bases 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
The Navy’s sea lions and dolphins can also be deployed overseas. They always travel with their veterinarians and trainers, and they are transported in pools that can be heated or cooled according to the animals’ needs. They have been a valuable part of the U.S. military since the Vietnam War.
The dolphins and sea lions work out in the open ocean each day. If they happen to leave their trainers during an open water swim, a pinger’s sound located on the boat can call them back. “The pinger is highly reinforced with a ton of fish,” Katie explained, “so it’s kind of like raising your voice to say, Hey, come home!'”
As we headed back inside, I asked Katie about the internship program. How do you become an intern? The Navy offers several internships for high school sea cadets and college and veterinary students. Interns go on to become trainers for the program itself, vet techs, veterinarians, or work with other marine mammal programs around the country. When asked about her own dreams, Katie smiled shyly and said she hopes to become a trainer at the program, continuing the friendship she has begun with these beautiful, intelligent animals.
The next time you see a working dolphin or sea lion in the bay, I hope you’ll regard them with pride and thankfulness, knowing they are loved animals that are protecting our country and contributing to the conservation of their wild counterparts.
To request a spot in a tour, you can contact the Navy Marine Mammal Program at 619-553-5252. Please note that tours are only available to those with access to a military base.
All images used with permission from the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program website.
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