Use of Dolphins by the U.S. Navy

By Ric O’Barry, Founder/Director of Dolphin Project

Animals are apolitical and should not be drafted into military service or deliberately put in danger during a human conflict.” ~ Ric O’Barry

Whatever one thinks about our own national security needs, should we really be dragging other species into our conflicts? Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening in the US Navy Marine Mammal Program, with unlikely recruits including dolphins, California sea lions and seals.

Research on these mammals began in 1960 in California, and by 1965, a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy was the first cetacean to be “drafted” into Navy service. Two years later, the program became classified, with the majority of its animals located in San Diego.

US Navy Marine Mammal Program bottlenose dolphin on mineclearance operations, with locator beacon

Credit: US Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Brien Aho (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons

I spent some time a few years ago at this facility. I met all the dolphins involved at that time in the program. The Navy’s dolphin program is top secret, thus we really don’t know which dolphins are in the war zone and which are standing by to be trained. They are used to find mines, stop enemy divers from placing mines on our own ships and recover underwater objects.

The Navy used to use the term “Advanced Biological Weapon System” (ABWS) to describe the dolphins, all of which live in substandard conditions and are controlled by food. Their description of the mammals is also very revealing as it describes our relationship with nature. In my opinion, this is a faulty weapon system and should be replaced with an alternative such as side-scan sonar, which is cruelty-free and more dependable.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the Navy. I spent five of the most important years of my life in the US Navy, and I have a lot of respect for our military people. I know they work hard and put themselves in danger to protect our nation and other nations. What I cannot reconcile is the cruelty in the capture process, the extreme pressures of captivity on these dolphins, and the inhumane means used to train them.

For example, to cite another Navy term, these dolphins are fitted with an Anti Foraging Device (AFD). This is a simple strip of orange Velcro that is attached around the snout. The AFD prevents the dolphin from opening its mouth, which is necessary for the dolphin to catch fish, eat and hydrate itself. This is how the Navy dolphins are controlled when they are in the open sea. When one is lost, they send out a search team to look for the “system” using a “recall pinger,” which can be heard by the dolphin from a great distance. If the dolphin returns to the pinger and trainer, the AFD is removed and the ABWS is rewarded with food. If the “system” is lost, they simply replace it with another one.  (Marine mammal teams are now called “MK 4”, “MK 5”, “MK 6”, “MK 7” and “MK 8”, dropping the ABWS terminology.)

Another real danger to the dolphins — and I’m talking about all dolphins in a war zone — is that every dolphin in the area, wild or trained, is placed in harm’s way because the enemy simply kills every dolphin that they come across. One can’t really tell the difference between the friendly and the enemy dolphins. This is done with bombs, hand grenades, and especially “ashcans,” which is an anti-submarine explosion devise. 

The sad fact is, dolphins are not dependable – they are controlled by food. When they are full, they do not respond. This is exactly why we had five dolphins for the “Flipper” TV series. When Flipper #1 had ten pounds of food and was full, I lost control, and I would bring out Flipper #2, and so on.

These dolphins don’t understand anything about warfare – it is a game to them; a way to get fed. But they can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild to live out the rest of their lives in freedom. 

Buck and Luther were two US Navy dolphins that I released back into the wild, after spending two years of preparation and training them to survive. The Navy recaptured them a few days later, calling it a “rescue”. The Navy was able to use the Navy recall pinger that I mentioned earlier to lure them back into a sea pen.

Tragically, that release was sabotaged because it had the potential to open the door to freedom for all Navy dolphins, threatening the entire program. It also had the potential to end the flow of millions of dollars to the civilian corporation that runs this program. After the dolphins were re-captured, Buck was sent to the Dolphin Research Center, a captive operation. He spent a few years there painting pictures for tourists before he died. Luther was flown back to the polluted waters of San Diego Bay and put back into active duty in the Navy.

The captivity industry uses this incident to claim that I committed a crime and was arrested – yet, I was never charged or held in jail for the so-called “crime” of freeing captive dolphins.

Here are some of the listed causes of death among US Navy dolphins:

*Foreign body 
(presumably eaten?)
*Capture related
*Failure to adapt
*Related to jaw fracture
*Possible toxic fish
*During release
*Spinal fracture
*Toxic shock
*Failure to thrive 
during testing

*Source: Marine Mammal Inventory Report 11/09/2000. 

Keeping dolphins under such conditions undermines our security and harms these intelligent, self-aware beings. The US Navy Marine Mammal Program should be terminated, with the animals given an honorable discharge and sent home. 

By the way, I wrote a book about all of this. It’s called “To Free A Dolphin.”

Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and all donations are tax-deductible as authorized by law. IRS 990s: 2022 2021 2020

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