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The Navy's Other Seals ... And Dolphins

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The Navy's Other Seals ... And Dolphins

Strange News

The Navy's Other Seals ... And Dolphins

The Navy's Other Seals ... And Dolphins

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121124423/121125752" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

In 2003, Zak, a 375-pound California sea lion, was being trained by the Navy to locate swimmers near piers, ships and other objects in the water considered suspicious and a possible threat to American military forces. Bob Houlihan/AP/U.S. Navy hide caption

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Bob Houlihan/AP/U.S. Navy

In 2003, Zak, a 375-pound California sea lion, was being trained by the Navy to locate swimmers near piers, ships and other objects in the water considered suspicious and a possible threat to American military forces.

Bob Houlihan/AP/U.S. Navy

We've all heard of the missile gap during the Cold War. This week we learned of another gap between Russia and the United States — a sea lion gap.

Gennady Matishov, the director of the Murmansk Marine Biology Institute in northern Russia, told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that Russia needs to catch up to the United States when it comes to militarized sea mammals.

Seriously?

"It is true that the U.S. military does employ teams of dolphins and sea lions," Noah Shachtman says. He's an editor for Wired Magazine and runs its military technology blog, "Danger Room."

They take on two roles, Shachtman says. "One is to look for underwater mines, and the other is that marine mammals are used to patrol certain U.S. bases to watch out for the very unlikely event of a terrorist swimmer attack."

The animals are trained at the Navy's Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. In one task, dolphins might learn how to use strobe lights to mark intruders.

"A dolphin would drop the strobe light, and that would signal the humans to come and respond to the infiltration," Shachtman says.

Sea lions are better equipped for action. "They actually can have a little cuff they carry around, and can actually cuff the potential waterborne intruder," he says.

The U.S. military has already deployed these underwater sentries at a Naval base in Georgia, and it plans to use them next year at a submarine base in Washington state.