Meet the Other Navy Seals (and Dolphins)

Cute—and creepy—photos of the US Navy program that trains marine mammals as minesweepers and underwater sentries.
Meet the Other Navy Seals (and Dolphins)

You've likely heard of the Navy SEAL dog that took part in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Now meet the other Navy seals. Actually, they're sea lions. And dolphins.

For more than five decades, the Navy has enlisted sea lions, dolphins, and other marine mammals as an elite corps of underwater sentries, searchers, and mine-sweepers. Its Marine Mammal Program started in 1960 when weapons researchers studied a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Notty to see if she might teach them something about designing speedier torpedoes. She didn't, but the service has remained intriguiged by sea mammals' speed, stealth, sonar, and smarts. During the Vietnam War, specially trained dolphins were deployed to protect ships in Cam Ranh Bay. The Navy denies that they were dispatched to kill enemy divers as part of a "swimmer nullification program", though more recently sea lions have been trained to "attach restraint devices to swimmers." (The notion of dolphins as trained killers inspired The Day of the Dolphin, a 1973 movie starring George C. Scott.) Since the mid-1970s, the program has expanded to include beluga whales, seals, and and killer whales, though bottlenose dolphins and Californa sea lions have become its two mainstays due to their "their trainability, adaptability, and heartiness in the marine environment."

The Navy says its 100 or so marine mammals' primary missions are mine-hunting and "swimmer defense." Dolphins were first sent to the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s. In 1996, Navy dolphins assisted the Secret Service (PDF) during the Republican National Convention in their home port of San Diego, and NASA reportedly expressed interest in using sea lions to protect Space Shuttle launches (PDF). More recently, both dolphins and sea lions have been sent to the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea to help clear mines and guard ships. The Navy has hailed "swimmer defense dolphins" as "a strong deterrent against terrorist attacks" like the one on the USS Cole in 2000.

Animal-rights activists have long objected to the Navy's marine-mammal program, criticizing the use of benign sea creatures in military operations and the cramped conditions in which they are housed and transported. "Using animals for military defense is unnecessary and cruel and could very well cost lives—not save them," PETA wrote in response to a plan to use dolphins and sea lions to guard a naval base in Washington. The Navy claims that it treats its flippered conscripts humanely, noting that they are fed "higher-than-restaurant-quality fish" and travel in pools designed "to keep the animals in an environment as much like San Diego as possible." It also argues that its work has added to the scientific knowlege of these animals: "The more we know about marine mammals, the better we can protect them."