America’s Military Dolphins and Sea Lions


~King Snorky

johnny mnemonnic

Dolphins—nature’s cute, bubbly, highly intelligent rape monsters that we just can’t help but love who jump through hoops when attractive women in wetsuits blow a whistle.  We inherently think that dolphins are adorable because they look like they’re smiling, and they are very easy to be trained into playing with inflatable balls for your amusement.  The prevailing cultural image of the dolphin is Flipper, the loyal friend, slash, carefree frolicker.

The American military, however, had other ideas.  They looked at the dolphin and thought, possibly while just a bit drunk, “What if, like *burp* we made, like, dolphin soldiers?”  Which is why in 1960, the Navy began studying dolphins for military purposes, eventually establishing the United States Marine Mammal Program, which started its first military project in 1965.  Yes, we have an army of Navy-trained dolphins (and sea lions) at our disposal.  Yes, that is just about the coolest sentence we’ve gotten to write this week.  Fuck yeah, dolphin army.

America’s Military Dolphins and Sea Lions


The first use of a dolphin by the Military occurred in 1960 when the Navy got themselves a Pacific White-side Dolphin named Notty (somewhat distressingly, there’s not much mention of how they managed to acquire one).  The original plan was to study the dolphin to see if they could learn anything about hydrodynamics as a way to find ways to reduce drag with launched torpedoes.  Our measuring technology was somewhat limited back then, so nothing really came of it, but using dolphins for naval purposes started to sound like an increasingly good idea the further into the 1960s we got (these being America’s “crazy person on acid” years).  By 1962, we set up a research program at Point Mugu, California, and research had gone into which animals were best for their purposes.  Ultimately, the program decided to work with bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions—both were extremely trainable species with their own advantages.  Bottlenose dolphins have a sophisticated sonar that is more accurate than anything that we make currently, while sea lions have extremely strong vision and are able to spot objects from long distances.

The first military project to use trained dolphins was SEALAB II, an underwater habitat focused on researching the science of deep sea diving and rescue, with a healthy dose of understanding how crazy humans can get being (safely) isolated at the bottom of the sea.  The Navy took a dolphin named Tuffy and trained him to dive the 200 feet below from the surface to SEALAB II in order to deliver mail and tools to the three divers living there.  They also attempted, with middling success, to train Tuffy how to locate and guide lost divers to safety.  His involvement ultimately was deemed a success, and the Marine Mammal Program was allowed to move forward, and by the end of the Cold War the program would eventually have over 100 dolphins in its arsenal.  For the record, we call dibs on “Dolphin Arsenal” as our band name.  Also, if you were curious as to how adorable a dolphin named Tuffy delivering mail was, the answer is “incredibly.”

dolphin jumping

Tuffy might not have been the best at finding lost divers, but he was the best at finding…their hearts.

In 1967, the NMMP became a black budget program, which has largely fueled the rumors that various dolphins equipped with CO2-filled syringes have been trained to kill enemy swimmers by prodding them with the needle to cause an embolism.  While the Navy strongly denies this, if you get them drunk enough we’d like to think they’d at least admit that if it were real, it’d be super badass.  At the time, they only used dolphins—in 1975, they introduced sea lions and beluga whales to the program, though they eventually phased out the beluga whales and decided to stay with sea lions, who had the benefit of being able to handle amphibious situations while still proving to be hardy and trainable.

While sea lions have yet to be used in active war situations, we have used our dolphin fleet in war and skirmish scenarios—from 1970 to 1971, for example, five dolphins guarded an ammunition pier during the Vietnam War by providing surveillance against potential enemy swimmers (these are one of the situations where it’s rumored we used to dolphins as murder-porpoises).  They have also been used during the Tanker War from 1986 to 1988 to “protect the Third Fleet flagship,” patrolling the harbor to protect against enemy swimmers and mines.

The program was declassified and downsized in the 1990s, and we reduced our dolphin fleet by about 30, sending them to marine parks willing to take on additional trained dolphins.  Despite the decrease in the funding of the fleet, we still maintain a force of about 75 dolphins and 50 sea lions, who are trained and cared for on a budget of about $14 million a year.  Some might say that this is a waste of taxpayer money, to which we say, look at this picture of a military dolphin holding hands with a lost diver and tell us to our face that we didn’t get a great fucking deal there.

oh my god look at that

Think of it this way—our government spends $14 on awesome military dolphins, while we as a nation spent six times that amount to watch Jack and Jill in theaters.

We have five different marine mammal teams, designated MK 4, MK 5, MK 6, MK 7 and MK 8.  They each are trained to do a specific duty, and can be deployed at 72 hours’ notice to just about anywhere around the world (no, not including the Gobi Desert, you smartass).  MK 4, MK 7 and MK 8, which only have dolphins, detects enemy sea mines, since the sonar of the dolphins is so refined that they can use it to tell the difference between types of metals, making them ideal for detecting and marking the location of mines.  The MK 4 team looks for tethered mines floating up from the bottom of the sea, MK 7 dolphins find mines buried in sediment at the bottom of the ocean, and MK 8 is responsible for quickly finding safe, mine-free corridors for troop landings.  These three teams most recently were used in the Iraq War in 2003, where it is estimated that they helped detect more than 100 anti-ship mines and booby traps from the port of Umm Qasr.

The other two groups used by the Navy Marine Mammal Program also utilize sea lions, who aren’t as cute as dolphins, but come damn close.  MK 5, which is comprised solely of sea lions, recovers test equipment that has been fired from ships or dropped from planes into the ocean.  They first proved themselves to be far more adept at this work than human divers when they recovered an Anti-Submarine Rocket from 180 feet in 1970, though they also have been trained to recover dummy victims in simulated airplane crashes.  MK 6, an integrated squad of both sea lions and dolphins, are trained as sentries.  If there really are killer navy dolphins and sea lions, they’d be in MK 6.  Officially, they alert the Navy to intruding enemy divers in one of two ways.  The dolphins plug a device into the back of the enemy’s air tank, which is attached to a buoy that floats to the surface, while the sea lions attach this device by, and we’re serious here, handcuffing it to one of the enemy’s limbs.

sea lions in the military

Okay, so the sea lions are pretty adorable as well.

Some take issue with the idea of putting dolphins and sea lions potentially in harm’s way during military situations, while others still take issue with the animals being largely kept in captivity (except for when they train, where they get free reign of the ocean).  To those people we’d say, “Shut up and eat a hamburger, you vegetarian hippie.”  In the history of the program, only one dolphin has died while “on duty.”  That occurred in October 1987 in the Persian Gulf, when the adorably named “Skippy” died of bronchial pneumonia as a result from a bacterial infection.  Otherwise, the Navy adheres to the regulations maintained by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Animal Welfare Act, and other laws that exist to make sure that we aren’t dicks to dolphins and sea lions.  The 10-year survival rate of the animals is about 95-97%, which considering that both dolphins and sea lions average about 20 year lifespans is pretty acceptable.  Their best stretch was a year-and-a-half where all 140 marine mammals in their care suffered no fatalities.

Basically, the mammals are cared for about as well, if not better, than the dolphins and sea lions at most water shows (or, in the case of SeaWorld, probably much better).  But also, they are fucking dolphin and sea lion water soldiers, which is the greatest thing, so let’s not think about it too hard, okay?


Unfortunately, our time living in a country that has sea mammal naval units on the standby is probably coming to an end.  While the program is funded through 2020, there have been reports that the program will likely end in 2017, in another sad instance of robots taking away jobs from hard working porpoises.  While the idea of bomb-sweeping ocean Roombas littering the ocean floors is pretty badass, we’ll be sad to see our dolphin army leave.  Because again, we live in a country that saw the most intelligent creature the sea has to offer, and we thought, “Yeah, let’s teach those things to find bombs.”  America is awesome.

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