Oral History Project Hopes To Preseve Memories Of Navy Dolphins

Robert Siegel pays a visit to an oral history project that is trying to preserve the memories of the dolphins once used by the U.S. Navy to work on underwater mines. It faces severe budget cuts starting April 1. It's a race against time to capture and preserve voices of retired military dolphins.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Another group of animals is getting far less lethal attention. Last December, we learned that a cadre of military veterans - dolphins - were being taken out of service. The Navy had retained the creatures to patrol for undersea mines and perform other missions.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you saw the 1973 movie "Day of the Dolphin," you'll understand our next story. In the film, actor George C. Scott plays a doctor who has taught his dolphins to speak and understand English.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DAY OF THE DOLPHIN")

GEORGE C. SCOTT: (as Dr. Jake Terrell) Well, Fah, you've had quite a day, haven't you?

SIEGEL: The plot turns on the discovery that the dolphins were about to be used in an assassination attempt. In reality, the Navy dolphins were not hit men. But they did much more than what the government originally reported. Since the Cold War, the U.S. Navy had been training pods of the seagoing mammals to disable mines, recover and neutralize mines and to plant live mines. The animals are being retired now. Advances in robotics technology allow the Navy to use underwater drones to do the same job cheaper and better, but as it turns out, without the memories to share.

My curiosity about these aquatic veterans brought me here to a one-of-a-kind retirement center in the American Midwest. A team of archivists is working around the clock. They are recording and preserving the stories of the work these brave animals did on behalf of this nation. It is here in a cinder-block facility at the outskirts of the Illinois town of Belleville that curator Cory Storr and 34 graduate students in linguistics, library and aquamarine science have set up what amounts to a $40 million marine mammal memory project.

It's a round-the-clock effort to save the war stories of these creatures before they're lost. With a grant from the South Illinois SeaWorld Fund and the Aaron and Myrna Lipshitz Foundation, work is proceeding at a feverish pace. Cory Storr calls it a race against time.

CORY STORR: It's a race against time. These dolphins are reaching their 80's, their 90's. We learned our lesson when we neglected to collect the stories from the Army rescue bunnies used in Korea.

SIEGEL: Belleville, of course, means beautiful city in French, and French itself is the language of love. So it's appropriate that the Navy picked this southern Illinois town - the eighth largest in the state - to be home to retired dolphins. They are housed in what was, until recently, a facility to farm-raise whales. The recession led to that multimillion dollar business shutting down. And now, Belleville's Chamber of Commerce is counting on the dolphin story project to succeed in its wake.

NORM FOSTER: We knew that locating them here would bring enormous goodwill to the city.

SIEGEL: Norm Foster is head of the chamber.

FOSTER: We've been desperate for something like this. Of course, the smell of all the fish is awful, but we think it's worth it.

SIEGEL: Each week, some 250-terabyte hard drives get shipped to Washington to be preserved at the American Marine Mammal Oral History Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The AMMOHFC may be the largest collection of sea creature speech in the country. Getting the dolphins to recount their tales is tedious work, but graduate students Vera Conroy(ph) and Condoleezza Rubin(ph) say the effort is worth it.

CONDOLEEZZA RUBIN: Really, you know, I think we just kind of bring out some food, a little bit of fish and (unintelligible).

SIEGEL: Condoleezza, do you have that sense that these aren't any ordinary retired dolphins, but these are real cloak and dagger, you know, commando dolphins we're talking about?

RUBIN: Definitely. I mean, they are super friendly just like any other dolphins would be. But they have some history. And we need to be respectful.

SIEGEL: When the project ends, the costly underwater microphones will be sold for scrap. But for now, there is one remaining issue that must be addressed. Again, curator Cory Storr.

STORR: We have no (bleep) idea what these dolphins are saying. They could just be shooting the (bleep) or singing or talking smack about seals. We have no idea.

SIEGEL: So until the aqua folklorists of the future arrive at some sort of algorithm to sort out all the squeaks and bleeps, the benefits of this massive project will not be known. Only time will tell.

CORNISH: Our story, part of our occasional series American Dolphinity(ph), was produced with our partner the Center for Martial Aquatic Journalism.

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