Marine Mammals Are a Force Multiplier

By Commander Daniel M Renwick, U.S. Navy, Rob Simmons, Dr. Scott C Truver

In the early 1970s, the Navy also worked with sea lions in Project Quick Find, which developed these animals' capability to find and recover hardware and test missiles equipped with acoustic "pingers." This system became operational in 1975 and has since recovered some 40 exercise antisubmarine rockets and numerous exercise mines, in addition to other items, saving scarce funds and time and obviating the need for human divers to do the job.

The fleet Marine Mammal Systems were attached to the Naval Special Warfare/SEAL force from 1973 until 1983, after which the Navy realigned and incorporated the mammals into the EOD program. Since then, the Navy has focused on developing their expeditionary capability to operate from austere shore bases in forward areas, and beginning in 1993, the focus broadened to developing a capability to operate from ships. Even operations from submarines have been explored.

An important aspect of all of this is the fact that the Navy operates the marine mammal program in accordance with federal regulations promulgated under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Animal Welfare Act, various other statutes and regulations governing marine mammal collection and care, and explicit instructions from the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. In March 1995, the Navy declassified the basic MMS missions and operational concepts, allowing the service to communicate more effectively the benefits and capabilities of the program and the care and training these animals receive. The Navy's "Marine Mammal Strategic Plan," signed out in October 1996, solidifies the Navy's commitment to a comprehensive animal-care program and to enhancing the operational MMS until mine countermeasures research and development spawn hardware systems to replace them.

Indeed, the behavioral sciences, training techniques, and health-care aspects of the program have evolved significantly since the early days of the programs. Today, the Naval Research and Development Center in San Diego is at the leading edge in training these highly intelligent marine animals to undertake sophisticated and complex tasks.

Expeditionary Marine Mammals

The Navy's operational MMS detachments include about 40 animals and are located at EOD Mobile Unit Three in San Diego (bottlenose dolphins and sea lions) and EOD Mobile Unit Six in Charleston, South Carolina (sea lions). Another 50 animals are maintained by the Navy Command, Control, and Ocean Surveillance Center in San Diego; they are in training for MCM tasks or to serve in other support roles. This group also includes about 10 animals that have been "retired" after many years of service.

Each fleet MMS detachment includes four to eight dolphins or sea lions, which can be quickly deployed by strategic airlift to any part of the world and can be worked from ships in forward areas. The four MMS programs are:

  • Mk 4 Mod 0. Pacific bottlenose dolphins detect mines and attach neutralization charges on the mooring cables of close-tethered mines buoyant mines that are moored to anchors with the mine case close to the bottom to make them more difficult to detect, locate, and neutralize. The Navy is expanding this system's capability to neutralize all tethered buoyant mines, whether close to the bottom or not.
  • Mk 5 Mod 1. Sea lions attach recovery pendants to exercise mines and torpedoes and other test objects equipped with acoustic pingers. The teams of four sea lions in Charleston and San Diego have recovered more than 95% of the test and exercise mines, torpedoes, and other ordnance configured for sea lion recovery for which they were tasked during the past 20 years. The sea lions' operational envelope recently has been expanded to depths of 1,000 feet.
  • Mk 6 Mod 1. Dolphins provide defense for harbors, anchorages, and individual ships against swimmers and divers. First used at Cam Rahn Bay during 1970-71, a Mk 6 system deployed to Bahrain in 1987-88 during Operation Earnest Will. The Mk 6 is easily deployable on very short notice-as are all of the Navy's Marine Mammal Systems-requiring three C-141 sorties or one C-5 sortie to transport support vans, small boats, and equipment. The Mk 6 participates regularly in fleet exercises and real-world base security, providing the nation with its sole comprehensive surface and subsurface swimmer detection and response capability.
  • Mk 7 Mod 1. Dolphins detect, locate, and mark or neutralize "proud" bottom mines-those that are on the surface of the seafloor-and buried mines. These animals are the only operational buried-mine detection and neutralization capability in the world today.

The Mk 4 and Mk 7 MMS MCM detachments are integral operational elements of the Navy's dedicated mine countermeasures forces and have demonstrated the capability to operate for extended periods from ships in forward areas. During the Bell Thunder '93 and '95 exercises, for example, MMS detachments on board the USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) and Cleveland (LPD-7) detected shallow-water anti-invasion mines. In RimPac '94, the Navy operated three Mk 4 and four Mk 7 MMS dolphins from the USS Juneau (LPD-10), to evaluate the integration of diverse surface and airborne MCM and EOD assets and to assess the ability of the marine mammals to conduct MCM operations from a surface ship at sea. The Mk 4 dolphins made the 11-day surface transit from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in special swimming pools on board the Juneau, and the four Mk 7 animals flew directly from San Diego on strategic airlift aircraft. Once acclimated to the exercise area's environmental conditions, which took less than a day, both Mk 4 and Mk 7 systems worked with MCM helicopters embarked on the Juneau, finding moored mines and proud and buried bottom mines in deep, shallow, and very shallow water environments.

Humanitarian Ops, Too

The Navy's marine mammals also have provided emergency humanitarian assistance. The Charleston sea lions recently assisted a local sheriff's department in locating a car that had fallen into a river. After divers had made several futile attempts, a sea lion found the car on its first dive and attached a magnetic device and line, allowing it to be recovered. In the fall of 1996, San Diego-based Navy dolphins responded to a boating accident, and, although they did not find anything in this instance, they did confirm that there were no additional bodies in the water.

The success of these animals has generated a proposal to expand the Marine Mammal Systems' quick response capabilities to play a role in aircraft crashes and body location and recovery. The sea lions already have demonstrated the ability to carry a video camera to record their searches, and the dolphins use a search-grid pattern and echo-location techniques in mine-hunting that can be adapted easily to such a mission. This potential has convinced Vice Admiral A. J. Krekich, Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, to direct the operational marine mammal forces to study the concept of operations for humanitarian tasks within the context of the Navy's salvage mission.


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