Marine Mammal Program Enhances National Security

May 23, 2024: The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program employs bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to detect and recover objects and threats in harbors and at sea, benefiting the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. These marine mammals are adept at identifying explosives, mines, enemy divers, and various vessels, both manned and unmanned.

A crucial mission for these animals is safeguarding the Navy’s submarines, which are integral to the nuclear triad, noted Drew Walter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters. Ohio-class submarines, which carry Trident II missiles, are based at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, and Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington. These submarines will soon be joined by the future Columbia-class submarines.

Walter emphasized the irreplaceable skills of these marine mammals, honed by millions of years of evolution, making them exceptionally adept at detecting objects in noisy, low-visibility environments filled with seaweed. Their remarkable hearing and vision capabilities surpass any current or foreseeable technology.

The Marine Mammal Program is headquartered at the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific in San Diego. During a recent visit, Walter observed the training facility and interacted with the trainers, veterinarians, and support staff who ensure the dolphins and sea lions receive excellent care. These animals are fed a diet of high-quality fish and vitamins, undergo regular physical examinations, and are treated ethically, resulting in lifespans significantly longer than their wild counterparts.

The marine mammals are trained to retrieve lost equipment and potentially hazardous materials, working closely with their handlers. They can swim alongside small boats for short distances or be transported by sea, air, or naval vessels for longer missions. The animals are not confined and can freely come and go, establishing a partnership with their trainers.

The program, which has been operational for around six decades, has not only benefited military operations but also contributed significantly to marine biology and behavior research, with over 1,200 scientific publications to its credit. Walter highlighted that the dolphins and sea lions are invaluable assets in maintaining security and supporting scientific advancements.–By David Vergun