Navy Lays Off Dolphins, Replaces With Robots

Alisa Manzelli, Global Animal

SAN DIEGO — Since 1960, the U.S. Navy has been training bottle-nosed dolphins for mine detection. In an effort to keep our ports safe, dolphins are taught to locate underwater mines so humans can retrieve them. The mammals have been deployed in the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, as well as the Iraq War.

However, it looks as though these dolphins may soon enjoy early retirements. With advancements in technology, the Navy plans to gradually phase out these dolphins and, for the next five years, replace them with 12-foot torpedo-shaped robots, or sea drones—unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

Photo Credit: Ecorazzi

However, Navy officials say they are not yet ready to totally replace sea mammals with drones.

“Because of the unique capabilities of the marine mammals in the shallow water environment, there are several critical misions that they perform that cannot be matched by technology or hardware in the near-term.” James Fallin, a spokesman for Space and Warfare Systems Command Pacific (Spawar) told the North County Times.

However, mine-detection equipment and systems have significantly improved in recent years, and Navy officials say that an unmanned underwater vehicle can do the some of the same mine-hunting jobs and can be manufactured quickly—unlike the seven years it takes to train a dolphin for duty.

However, animal activists shouldn’t rejoice just yet. Only 24 of Navy-owned dolphins are involved in mine-hunting, and Navy officials intend to keep these dolphins working with plans of reassigning them to other tasks.

“About a quarter of (the Navy dolphins) would be affected. But it’s not like they are going to go jobless. We have other assignments,” Mike Rothe, head of the biosciences division at the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific in San Diego said.

These ‘other assignments’ include finding and bringing back objects from deep water as well as locating enemy swimmers. Sea lions perform a sort of citizens arrest. Once they find a swimmer who doesn’t belong, the sea lion attaches a claw-like apparatus.

The government takes responsibility for these animals even after completing their military work, but retiring animals to a marine sanctuary isn’t typically a part of the Navy’s agenda. The government has been known to loan out dolphins to Sea World, but as we all know this is not exactly the best way to reconcile given Sea World’s track record with animal welfare.

Honestly, the best that comes from this news is at least the government no longer captures wild dolphins for their $24 million marine mammal program and that the dangerous duties will be lessened for these intelligent creatures. It is time to properly thank these animals for all of their hard work and get them a better retirement plan!