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Dolphins, sea lions assist the Navy

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Dolphins dazzle crowds at SeaWorld for their tricks and flips, but just a few miles away, their relatives train for a different kind of mission: to help protect lives and naval assets.

The U.S. Navy relies on the sensory and diving capabilities of dolphins and sea lions to detect and mark mines and enemy swimmers who pose a threat to people, vessels and harbor facilities.

Marine mammals are so important to the Navy that there is an entire program dedicated to studying, training and deploying them, called the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP).

Just as a dog's keen sense of smell makes it ideal for detecting land mines, dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to man. That makes them uniquely effective at locating sea mines and other potentially dangerous objects lurking in murky or dark waters on the ocean floor.

Sea mines are sophisticated and expensive weapons that are designed to sink ships, destroy landing craft and kill or injure in the ocean.

One research program sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing a computational model of a dolphin's biosonar system, incorporating the animal’s hearing system, search strategies and classification capabilities to find underwater targets.

POINT LOMA, Calif. (May 1, 2013) Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Christopher Burgess, assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 1, works with a bottlenose porpoise before a night training exercise. The unit operates with bottlenose dolphins as a means of locating and marking mines that are on the sea floor, tethered in the water column or in shallow water. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Scott)

Other marine mammals like the California sea lion -- which, like the dolphin, are highly reliable, adaptable and trainable -- can mark and retrieve objects for the Navy in the ocean.

The sea lion has excellent low-light vision and underwater directional hearing capabilities, which means they are adept at finding objects in challenging conditions and can maneuver in tight spaces, and can go onshore if necessary.

The development, training, veterinary care and research facility that supports today's Navy Marine Mammal Program is centered in the Biosciences Division at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific in San Diego.

Navy marine mammal systems are operated by units attached to Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Group One in San Diego. EOD Mobile Unit Three operates the dolphin and sea lion swimmer defense system, and the EOD Mobile Unit One operates the dolphin mine-hunting systems.

The Navy's work with marine mammals dates back to the late 1950s, when the Navy began to study how dolphins move in the water to improve torpedo, ship and submarine designs.

Soon, the Navy realized that dolphins would be valuable assistants to Navy divers working in the open ocean.

Unlike human divers, dolphins and sea lions are capable of making repeated deep dives without experiencing "the bends," or decompression sickness.

The Navy uses dolphins in operational programs for swimmer defense — to detect swimmers, divers and swimmer delivery vehicles, and, if the handler determines the situation warrants, to mark them; and mine countermeasures — to detect bottom mines and moored mines, according to a 2012 SSC Pacific report.

The swimmer defense system was deployed to Vietnam in the early 1970s to protect the Army ammunition pier in Cam Ranh Bay and to Bahrain in the late 1980s to protect the Third Fleet flagship anchored in Manama Harbor, while serving as command ship for U.S. Navy vessels escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers, notes the report.

During the Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1996, shortly after the bombing at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Navy swimmer defense dolphins and their handlers were on duty near the waterside Convention Center in support of Secret Service personnel.

In the spring of 2003, Navy swimmer-defense dolphins were again deployed to the Persian Gulf to provide force-protection capabilities for the U.S. Fifth Fleet/U.S. Central Command.

An operational system developed in Hawaii employs California sea lions to locate and attach recovery hardware to unarmed instrumented test ordnance, which is fired or dropped into the ocean and then must be recovered.

The system has a standard recovery depth capability of 650 feet, with several sea lions specially trained and conditioned to make recoveries to 1,000-foot depths. The system became operational in 1975 and has been in service ever since, says the report.

Navy dolphins are maintained in their natural environment — bays and harbors of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans — in open-mesh enclosures that provide a normal echolocation environment and ample socialization opportunities, except during medical procedures and actual training periods.

The Navy’s dolphin survival rate is the highest among all organizations holding large numbers of marine mammals, says the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has regulatory responsibility for the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Navy dolphins are trained untethered in the open ocean on an almost daily basis, and yet in the course of 30 years of such training and hundreds of thousands of open-ocean sessions, less than ten of the Navy’s dolphins have failed to return to their enclosures, noted the report.

There are also some manmade breakthroughs in the underwater monitoring space.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Liquid Robotics Inc. makes marine robots that help government agencies and scientists gather ocean data for hurricane and tsunami predictions, ocean monitoring and preservation, tracking sharks, monitoring fish populations, identifying whales and mapping and measuring ocean floors.

In April, the company launched the Wave Glider SV3, the world’s first hybrid wave and solar-propelled unmanned ocean robot for advanced exploration.

The robots are low profile, contain no moving parts and can travel undetected, making them acoustically silent and ideal for defense, national security operations and commercial operations.

Essentially acting as floating data centers, the robots use state-of-the-art arm processors, Linux and satellite services.

"It is quite an accomplishment to have them operating in the harsh seas for up to months and years at a time. Sort of cloud computing meets the ocean," said Susie Reeves, spokeswoman for Liquid Robotics.

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