The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program uses bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to detect, locate and recover objects and threats in harbors and at sea for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Threats could include explosives, mines, enemy divers and manned or unmanned surface or subsurface vessels.  

A particularly important mission for the mammals is protection of the Navy’s submarines which are part of the nuclear triad, said Drew Walter, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters.

Trident II missiles are carried aboard Ohio-class submarines and plans are for them to be carried aboard the future Columbia-class submarines. Ohio-class submarines are based at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, and Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington.  

“Millions of years of evolution have given these animals exceptional skills and detection capabilities that cannot be replaced by any technology we have today and probably cannot be replaced by new technology we’re going to have for a long time,” he said.  

“They have this extraordinary ability to find objects amidst all of the noise, seaweed and low visibility environment,” he said, adding that their hearing and vision is phenomenal.  

Over short distances, they are trained to either swim alongside a small boat or ride in the boat itself. For longer trips, animals can be transported comfortably by sea on naval vessels or by air in planes or helicopters, he said.

The Marine Mammal Program and training location for the mammals is at Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific in San Diego.  

Earlier this month, Walter visited the training facility in San Diego and talked to the trainers, veterinarians and other support personnel. 

The dolphins and sea lions are given exquisite care and are well-fed with the right kinds of fish and vitamins prepared in a special kitchen, he said. They’re also given regular physical examinations and receive the most ethical treatment.  

Navy dolphins are so well cared for that they live about twice as long as other dolphins; Navy sea lions live about three times as long as those in the wild. 

The mammals can retrieve all sorts of stuff like lost equipment or potentially hazardous materials that could pose a threat to security, he said. Sometimes the dolphins and sea lions and their handlers team up to do these tasks.  

The trainers prefer to say that they partner or team up with these mammals, who are not confined and can come and go out to sea as they please, he said.  

They’re trained to find and bring back practice targets or real items that the Navy handlers and teammates put out, he said. They’re also trained to alert their handlers if they perceive a threat.  

The Marine Mammal Program, which started about six decades ago, has not only been a benefit for the sea services, it also has been vital to scientists and researchers, who have authored over 1,200 scientific publications related to marine biology and behavior, Ward said. 

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