Dolphin Helps Navy Recover Rare Torpedo Under The Sea

A dolphin being trained by the Navy to find underwater mines recently made a surprising discovery: a 130-year-old brass torpedo, lying dormant at the bottom of the ocean. Host Rachel Martin talks with Chris Harris, chief of operations for the Navy's Marine Mammal Program, about the find.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It started as just another routine training session. Trainers at the U.S. Navy's Space and Navy Warfare Systems Center in San Diego were teaching dolphins to identify underwater mines when one of the dolphins found something unexpected - a 130-year-old brass torpedo, lying dormant on the bottom of the ocean. It's an extremely rare weapon - there were only 50 of them ever made - and they haven't been used since the 1880s. Here to talk to us about this extraordinary find is Chris Harris. He is operations chief for the Navy's Marine Mammal Program at the Center. Chris, welcome to the program.

CHRIS HARRIS: Well, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, tell us how this went down. The dolphin is swimming along and then essentially signals that he had found something?

HARRIS: That's correct. The dolphins are actually swimming in the ocean unrestrained next to a small craft. And in that craft, they have a handler - that's their human counterpart. They work hand in glove with that person. And the way the dolphin communicates new information to his handler is to touch a small paddle on the side of the boat. And in this case, a dolphin touched the paddle, which indicated there was something of interest in an area that we didn't expect there to be because this was a training practice field. We thought we knew everything was there. It turned out to be something really interesting.

MARTIN: And this particular torpedo, we're talking about something was made before American households even had access to electricity, right?

HARRIS: Yeah. It really is. It's an amazing piece. You can visualize it yourself. It's all made out of one-eighth-inch rolled brass. It's very intricate, has a lot of intricate articulating pieces to it. And when we realized it had been buried under the ocean floor for about 130 years, we were all more or less mesmerized and in the presence of something that was really special.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea how it got to the bottom of the ocean?

HARRIS: I don't. You know, it happened so long ago and it hasn't been part of the Navy's inventory for many generations.

MARTIN: What happens to the torpedo now? Where does it go?

HARRIS: Well, the torpedo is in the process of being transferred to the Naval Historical and Heritage Command, which is in Washington, D.C. There, they'll be using their marine archaeologists and they'll be looking at this from a number of different perspectives. First of all, it's unique, it's got historical significance. But they're also quite interested in how this item interacted with the ocean environment and how it remained so well-preserved for so many years.

MARTIN: And what happened to the dolphin? Did he get a promotion?

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: The dolphins get a lot of love and a lot of attention. Every day is special when you get an opportunity to interact with dolphins, as we do. And so for the dolphin, they may have just perceived as having been another day at work.

MARTIN: Chris Harris. He is operations chief for the Navy's Marine Mammal Program at the Navy Space and Navy Warfare Systems Center in San Diego. Chris, thanks so much for your time.

HARRIS: Hey. It's been my pleasure. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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