There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, mix yourself a glass of something good, and take notes as we look at the most badass sea creatures in the world.
Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The height of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. The assassinations of JFK and MLK. The lunar landing.
The 1960s were wild and tumultuous times. But I have to wonder, if not for the aforementioned historic and sociopolitical events, would the ’60s instead be remembered for events not included in today’s U.S. history textbooks? Namely the rise of marine mammal stardom—and battle training.
Maybe not. But “Flipper,” the story of a young boy who befriends an injured dolphin in the Florida Keys, made its massive silver screen and primetime television debuts in the 1960s. Meanwhile, further up the Atlantic Coast, the real-life story of a presumed orphan seal named Andre and the man who rescued it in 1961 captivated locals and tourists in Rockport, Maine, for over 25 years. Throw in the 1964 opening of the original Sea World in San Diego and, for better or worse, you’ve got coast-to-coast coverage of marine mammals in the spotlight.
However, the most intriguing but lesser-known role of marine mammals began in the early 1960s and remained classified until the early 1990s—the United States Navy Marine Mammal Program.
That’s right. There are U.S. Navy SEALs, and then there are U.S. Navy Seals (and sea lions and dolphins, too). The SEALs—Sea, Air, and Land Teams—are the Navy’s elite special operations force. Likewise, the animals of the Navy Marine Mammal Program are trained for special operations in their own right.
Just as working dogs use their powerful senses of smell to protect troops on land, the Marine Mammal Program trains animals with exceptional swimming and sonar capabilities to detect, locate, mark, and recover objects in coastal area and deep in the open ocean. Over a dozen animal species, also including sharks, turtles, and stingrays, have been reportedly used by the Navy for military operations in the last 50 years. Today, bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions are the primary trainees deployed in the program.
When it comes to some operations, the human SEALs are no match for their animal counterparts.
“They are incredible assets that are equally terrifying,” one former Navy SEAL, who wished to remain anonymous, told MeatEater.
Dolphins have biological sonar capabilities that can detect objects missed by electronic sonar. Sea lions have unmatched directional hearing underwater. The former SEAL spoke of team training dives where, under the cover of darkness in extremely murky water, they (the human SEALs) were tasked with locating underwater targets. The divers had no aid from the surface and little more than a compass to covertly carry out the simulation.
“In those situations, the dolphins were deployed to mark us as if we were enemy divers,” the former SEAL said. “We didn’t know if, when, or from where they would zero in on us, but you did not want to get hit by them. It was like getting hit with a ton of bricks going 30 miles per hour.”
Upon tagging the divers, the dolphins would release a buoy that activated a strobe light when it reached the surface to signify the enemy location.
So, while the idea of “attack dolphins” might sound equal parts silly and badass, the U.S. military has continually dispelled rumors that dolphins are trained to carry out lethal missions on enemies. However, other Navy sources have reported that weaponized dolphins have in fact been trained to carry deadly CO2 dart systems filled with compressed nitrogen. The gas is injected upon impact with an enemy diver causing embolism and death.
We know that marine mammals have been deployed in wartime situations ever since the Vietnam War when they were used to defend harbors and ships. Likewise, during the Iraq War, marine mammals detected more than 100 anti-ship mines in the Persian Gulf.
Animal welfare advocates have spoken out against the program nearly since its inception. The Navy, however, claims that it adheres strictly to all federal laws and requirements regarding the proper care of animals. The program is still training around 70 dolphins and 30 sea lions at any given time.
Maybe there is actually a place for trained marine mammals in U.S. history textbooks, though exact details of their covert missions may never be known.