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U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program

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What species of marine mammals are used by the Navy?


In the early years of the Navy's Marine Mammal Program, several marine mammal species were investigated and considered for their sensory and physical capabilities. Today, the Navy cares for, trains, and relies on two species; the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), and the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). Both of these species are known for their trainability, adaptability, and heartiness in the marine environment. The Navy also has two white whales, or belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) that have been subjects in a number of research projects and are currently on breeding loan.


Why does the Navy use marine mammals?

The Navy currently relies on dolphins and sea lions to help protect lives and naval assets for two major reasons: 1) Their sensory capabilities; and, 2) Their diving capabilities. Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to man. Mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor are acoustically difficult targets to detect, especially in murky or dark water. The dolphin's biosonar system is unmatched in its ability to make accurate detections. The sea lion has excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing capabilities. Sea lions are not only adept at locating objects in challenging conditions, they also have the ability to maneuver in tight spaces and can go onto the shore if necessary. Both species of animals can make repeated deep-water dives without suffering the effects of decompression sickness or "the bends" as humans do. One sea lion, two handlers, and a rubber boat searching for objects on the ocean floor can effectively replace a full-sized naval vessel and its crew, a group of human divers, and the doctors and machinery necessary to support the divers operating onboard the vessel.


Is the Navy exempt from following regulations for the keeping of marine mammals?

No. The Navy is subject to all federal laws regarding the protection and humane treatment of marine mammals. These include the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Under the MMPA, the Department of Commerce/NOAA Fisheries is responsible for pinnipeds (other than walruses) and cetaceans in the wild; the Department of the Interior is responsible for walruses, sea otters, polar bears, manatees, and dugongs. The AWA is administered by the Department of Agriculture and ensures the humane care and treatment of marine mammals in aquariums, zoos, and research facilities. The Navy is responsible for meeting all requirements of these laws regarding acquisition, care and treatment of its marine mammals, and not only meets but exceeds them and leads the industry in many cases. Congress has provided the Navy with exemptions to a few specific requirements in support of national security, but none related to the care and well-being of the animals.


Does the Navy train its dolphins for offensive warfare, including attacks on ships and human swimmers or divers?

No. The Navy does not now train, nor has it ever trained, its marine mammals to harm or injure humans in any fashion or to carry weapons to destroy ships. A popular movie in 1973 ("The Day of the Dolphin") and a number of charges and claims by animal rights organizations have resulted in theories and sometimes actual beliefs that Navy dolphins are assigned attack missions. This is absolutely false. Since dolphins cannot discern the difference between enemy and friendly vessels, or enemy and friendly divers and swimmers, it would not be wise to give that kind of decision authority to an animal. The animals are trained to detect, locate, and mark all mines or all swimmers in an area of interest or concern, and are not trained to distinguish between what we would refer to as good or bad. That decision is always left to humans.


Does the Navy ask the dolphins and sea lions to do dangerous things?

The dolphins locate and mark the location of sea mines which are designed to be set off by large ships, not aquatic animals. In the swimmer detection program, dolphins and sea lions move so quickly and with such accuracy that human swimmers in dark or murky waters are located and marked before they know what has happened. Once the marking has been completed, the animals are removed from the area before mines are disarmed or swimmers are apprehended by trained security forces. Marine mammals are actually in more danger from sharks, and wild marine mammals are put in much more danger by people who feed them (which is why it is illegal).


Why have there been so many rumors about the NMMP over the years?

Several decades of classification of the program's true missions of mine-hunting and swimmer defense, led to media speculation and animal activist charges of dolphins used as offensive weapons, speculation and charges that could not be countered with facts due to that classification. Additionally, fantasy is often times more interesting than reality. With declassification of the missions of the program in the early 1990s, the Navy has repeatedly and openly discussed those missions, but rumors are not easily forgotten, and there are those who continue to actively promote them.


In response to charges that the program abused the animals, the presidentially appointed Marine Mammal Commission investigated the program in 1988 and 1990. The Commission reported that the allegations were not only false, but that the Navy's care of its marine mammals was "exemplary."


How do the marine mammals protect the general public and military personnel?

They detect, locate and mark mines so human divers can deal with them appropriately before they damage or sink military or civilian ships, and they can also detect and mark enemy swimmers who pose a threat to people, vessels, and harbor facilities.


Have the Navy's marine mammals ever been used to help in other ways?

Yes. The most significant use of the Navy's marine mammals has been to teach us more about them in research that has generated over 800 publications in the open literature. The more we know about marine mammals, the better we can protect them. With the added advantage of working with animals trained to operate in open water without restraint, Navy as well as visiting scientists have learned many things about marine mammals that we might still not know otherwise.


Who sets the care standards for the animals in the NMMP?

An instruction from the Secretary of the Navy requires that the Navy's "marine mammals will be provided the highest quality of humane care and treatment." While it is important to us to have those words in writing, meeting them comes very naturally to the managers, trainers, scientists, veterinarians, engineers, and all other personnel working with and around the animals. The NMMP facilities in San Diego are state-of-the-art, including the food storage and preparation facilities, animal enclosures, and veterinary medical facilities. Regularly scheduled physical exams, balanced diets, an extensive database of health records, the training of husbandry and other behaviors, monthly briefs to all personnel on animal care topics, and a high level of professionalism mixed with genuine compassion all contribute to the health and welfare of the animals.


How are animals moved to and from remote deployment sites?

Over short distances, animals are trained to either swim alongside a small boat or to ride in the boat itself. For long distance trips, animals can be transported by sea in large naval vessels or by air in planes or helicopters. For these trips, sea lions ride in specially designed enclosures and are kept cool, wet, and comfortable. Dolphins are placed in fleece-lined stretchers that are suspended in fiberglass containers filled with enough water to comfortably support the weight of the animal. On these long transports, a veterinarian oversees the comfort and health care of all the animals while each animal is constantly monitored by an experienced trainer or handler. Upon arrival at their destinations, animals are housed in temporary facilities that are much like those in San Diego. In addition, a portable veterinary clinic accompanies the animals to provide veterinarians with everything they need to care for the health of the animals.

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