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Zoo Logic

May 30, 2019

Shrouded in secrecy until it was declassified in the 1990's, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program continues its mission which began nearly 60 years ago to protect service men and women at home and abroad. Dr. Mark Xitco, researcher and Director of the NMMP discusses the rich history of the program, the animal training and welfare focus in use today, the hundreds of publicly available peer-reviewed research papers on marine mammal behavior and physiology the program has produced, and the important recovery and security missions that teams of California sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, and their human trainers are ready to assist with 24 hours day anywhere in the world.

According to the NMMP website, in the early years of the program, more than a dozen different species of marine mammals, as well as sharks, rays, sea turtles, and marine birds were tested, and their sensory and physical capabilities explored. Today, the Navy relies on 
ottlenose dolphins and California sea lions as both are known for their trainability and adaptability to a wide range of marine environments.
The navy relies on dolphins because they "naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to science. Mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor that are difficult to detect with electronic sonar, especially in coastal shallows or cluttered harbors, are easily found by the dolphins. Both dolphins and sea lions have excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing that allow them to detect and track undersea targets, even in dark or murky waters. They can also dive hundreds of feet below the surface, without risk of decompression sickness or "the bends" like human divers. Someday it may be possible to complete these missions with underwater drones, but for now technology is no match for the animals."
The animals are trained for 3 primary missions: '"recovering objects in harbors, coastal areas, and at depth in the open sea, sea lions locate and attach recovery lines to Navy equipment on the ocean floor. Dolphins are trained to search for and mark the location of undersea mines that could threaten the safety of those on board military or civilian ships. Both dolphins and sea lions also assist security personnel in detecting and apprehending unauthorized swimmers and divers that might attempt to harm the Navy’s people, vessels, or harbor facilities."
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