Capt. William E. Simpson was stunned by the beauty, grace and intelligence of dolphins in the Sea of Cortez. So he hated to see them then be used by the Navy.
In 2008 my wife Laura and I departed our life on land and boarded our 70-foot sailboat and headed to the open seas and destinations well beyond the hustle and bustle of cities and human enterprises. This was going to be our second 3-year sailing expedition.
As we traveled the seas, coastlines and islands, the magnificence of the natural wonders seemed to be endless. Day after day we were astounded and amazed by what we witnessed. The entirety of the human lexicon cannot contain words sufficient to describe the sights that we were privileged to see, and I only wish there were words as eloquent as the experiences; I just don’t have them. Alas, the best I can offer is what is seen in some photos, which still fail to fully meet the mark.
In the photo above, a small pod of wild dolphins are chasing a small school of bait fish. Laura and I were just getting supper together when the pod of dolphins in the photo approached our boat where it was sitting at anchor at one of our favorite islands. Initially, we were down inside the boat preparing dinner when we could actually hear the calls of the dolphins as they sang their harmonic communications. The hull of a steel boat is an excellent acoustic coupler for the frequencies that they use for communications. So much so that it was quite common for Laura and I to hear dolphins and also whales, well before we could see them.
Many times as we would be relocating the boat to a new location, dolphins would lead the way, almost as if to say, “follow us, we know the good places”.
Other times we would find ourselves in schools of hundreds of dolphins, as far as the eye could see.
Dolphins are not fish; they are warm blooded mammals, like man. Dolphins are exceptionally intelligent, with a brain that approximates that of a human (see diagram below). Dolphins have a very complex language and are highly social.
We discovered that they are very curious, and will always check-out a boat that is moving through their area of operations, sometimes traveling with the boat for a considerable distance. When we would reach a destination anchorage, it usually wasn’t too long before one or more dolphins would appear to check us out.
As soon as we had our boat secured at anchor, we always launched the kayaks so that we could hang with the dolphins when they came around to visit. In the photo above, Laura is kayaking with a single dolphin that broke off from its pod to visit. These encounters were very special, and it was apparent that the dolphins enjoyed them as much as we did.
On one particular moonlit night dive, my son and I were scuba diving. The visibility was over 150 feet and from my 30 foot depth, I could look up through the water to the surface and see the moon above…it was truly surrealistic! We were almost living in John Steinbeck’s book The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
I was poking around under a large boulder looking for a lobster or three, when I was nearly scared right out of my wetsuit. As I was searching under the rock with my dive light, I suddenly felt a presence. I spun around fully expecting to see a shark! Instead of a shark, it was a dolphin that was about a two-feet away staring over my shoulder as if it was trying to see what I was looking at under the boulder. Of course during a night dive in the ocean when it comes to sensing an ‘unknown presence’, the first thing that comes to mind is sharks, which typically feed at night. And given we were right in the middle of where the Great White’s hang-out, having a large head near my shoulder scared the corpuscles right out of my blood. Of course it was less than a second when I recognized the smiling face of an inquisitive dolphin. What amazed me was that like an angel of deep, she stayed right near me for the entire dive, carefully watching every thing I did. This was quite comforting for me given that dolphins can detect sharks at great distances using their echo-location sonar, and are often accredited with driving sharks away from swimmers, as well as keeping drowning swimmers afloat. As I climbed back into our shore boat, and headed back to out ship, which was anchored about 2 miles inside the cove, the dolphin continued to follow us, all the way back to the ship, where she disappeared.
But nothing good can last forever and all that shimmers fades too soon. For a host of reasons, not least of which was the birth of a new grandchild, we decided to return to civilization and what some may consider the real world (we see it quite the opposite).
By the time we reached San Diego, CA, having outrun a hurricane that was threatening the Baja Peninsula on the Pacific side; it was the fall of 2011. As if happened, we anchored our ship in an area that was purportedly used to train Dolphins to find mines (yes, underwater bombs), and allegedly to also place mines on the hulls of enemy vessels. Of course as far as we knew, this was more of what we had considered to be myth and conspiracy, since we had no first-hand knowledge, only rumors. Or so we thought!
One morning in September I was up on deck having my coffee when a Navy Zodiac (SPAWAR) pulled nearby. As I studied the vessel, I realized that they had a live Dolphin onboard!
So I grabbed my camera and started taking some photos.
After a few minutes, the trainer gave the dolphin a command and the Dolphin slid itself into the water and hovered along the port side of the Zodiac (see photo above).
Apparently, what I had missed was, prior to deploying the dolphin into the water, a device was placed in the water about 100 yards away from where they put the dolphin in the water. The trainer spent about a minute speaking commands to the dolphin, presumably instructing it to find the device, and then they took off.
Apparently, the trainers use some form of tracking device that’s affixed to the dolphin, which allows the boat to track the dolphin when it goes under water. And presumably they can, using the same equipment, keep track of the target device that is on the bottom, which is being sought and recovered by the dolphin.
So, it turns out that in fact the Navy (SPAWAR) is training dolphins. You can see a link here, that describes the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, where they compare it to using bomb sniffing dogs:
Everyone is familiar with security patrol dogs. You may even know that because of their exceptionally keen sense of smell, dogs like beagles are also used to detect drugs and bombs, or land mines. But a dog would not be effective in finding a sea mine. Sea mines are sophisticated, expensive weapons that are designed to work in the ocean where they can sink ships, destroy landing craft, and kill or injure personnel. Sea mines are made so that they cannot be set off easily by wave action or marine animals growing on or bumping into them. If undetected, sea mines can be deadly, destructive weapons.
But just as the dog’s keen sense of smell makes it ideal for detecting land mines, the U.S. Navy has found that the biological sonar of dolphins, called echolocation, makes them uniquely effective at locating sea mines so they can be avoided or removed. Other marine mammals like the California sea lion also have demonstrated the ability to mark and retrieve objects for the Navy in the ocean. In fact, marine mammals are so important to the Navy that there is an entire program dedicated to studying, training, and deploying them. It is appropriately called the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP).
Given that a dolphin is far more intelligent than a dog, it certainly raises the question as to the dolphin’s motivation and/or willingness to act in a role that seems totally counter to their nature. In training, it’s all fun and games; hide and go seek, etc. But in actual warfare, it would be much different. From my chair, I have to ask; have we gone too far? Is there nothing left that is scared to modern man? It’s just a question…
To learn more about dolphins and their amazing lives and skills, try this link.
Cheers! Capt. Bill
All photos courtesy of author, Capt. William E. Simpson