A dolphin in training off the coast of Hawaii

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jennifer A. Villalovos


Dolphins on Duty

The U.S. Navy trains these supersmart animals to work on lifesaving missions.

As You Read: Think about why dolphins were chosen to help the Navy. What qualities do they have that make them a good choice?

JØRGEN REE WIIG/NORWEGIAN DIRECTORATE OF FISHERIES

In April, a fishing boat was bobbing along in the Arctic Ocean. As it sailed near the coast of Norway, a country in Europe, a fisherman on the boat spotted a beluga whale.The whale was wearing clips that hold a camera. Why would a whale need a camera? Could the animal be a spy?

The answer just might be yes! The whale also had clips on its harness with the words “St. Petersburg.” That’s the name of a city in Russia. Officials say this means the whale was likely trained by the Russian military as a spy.

This may seem a bit fishy. But whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are used to help militaries around the world. That includes the United States military. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program currently has more than 100 sea animals protecting our country from underwater threats.

In April, a fishing boat was bobbing along in the Arctic Ocean. It was sailing near the coast of Norway, a country in Europe. Then, a fisherman on the boat spotted a beluga whale. The whale was wearing clips that hold a camera. Why would a whale need a camera? Could the animal be a spy?

The answer just might be yes! The whale also had clips on its harness with the words “St. Petersburg.” That’s the name of a city in Russia. Officials say this means the whale was likely trained by the Russian military as a spy.

This may seem a bit fishy. But whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are used to help militaries around the world. That includes the United States military. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program currently has more than 100 sea animals. They protect our country from underwater threats.

The Best of the Best

The Navy program started in 1959. In the early years, the Navy tested out more than a dozen animals, including sharks, sea turtles, and birds. Today just two species are used: bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions.

“The Navy’s dolphins and sea lions perform missions that the Navy cannot yet accomplish in any other way,” says Mark Xitco. He’s the director of the program.

Both animals are very smart and easy to train. And both can quickly adapt to different environments, like shallow waters or deep seas.

But there are more dolphins in the program because they use echolocation. That means they use sound to “see” underwater!

The Navy program started in 1959. The Navy tested out more than a dozen animals in the early years. These included sharks, sea turtles, and birds. Today the Navy uses bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions.

“The Navy’s dolphins and sea lions perform missions that the Navy cannot yet accomplish in any other way,” says Mark Xitco. He’s the director of the program.

Both animals are very smart and easy to train. And both can quickly adapt to different environments. These include shallow waters and deep seas.

But there are more dolphins in the program because they use echolocation. That means they use sound to “see” underwater!

irin-k/Shutterstock.com (bee); guentermanaus/Shutterstock.com (pigeon); IrinaK/Shutterstock.com (squirrel)

On the Job

Dolphins begin training at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California, when they’re a few years old. Handlers show them how to look for and mark the locations of underwater explosives called mines. Mines could hurt or kill people on military ships. And they can be difficult for humans to detect. 

But it’s no problem for dolphins. Using echolocation, the animals can easily “see” through dark, muddy waters. Plus, they can dive hundreds of feet below the surface, much farther than humans can. Trainers also teach dolphins to identify enemy swimmers.

“The animals are natural hunters,” says Xitco. “We just change what they learn to hunt for.”

Navy dolphins live at the Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California. They begin training when they’re a few years old. Handlers show them how to look for underwater explosives called mines. The dolphins can then mark the mines’ location. Mines could hurt or kill people on military ships. And mines can be difficult for humans to detect.

But it’s no problem for dolphins. The animals can easily see through dark, muddy waters using echolocation. Plus, they can dive hundreds of feet below the surface. That’s much farther than humans can dive. Trainers also teach dolphins to identify enemy swimmers.

“The animals are natural hunters,” says Xitco. “We just change what they learn to hunt for.”

Reporting for Duty

In the past 40 years, Navytrained animals have traveled to the coasts of more than a dozen countries on official missions. When they aren’t on a mission, the dolphins help with security at Navy bases around the world and prepare for future jobs.

“They will be ready if they are needed,” says Xitco. “Navy dolphins and sea lions are always on duty.”

In the past 40 years, Navy-trained animals have traveled a lot. They’ve been to the coasts of more than a dozen countries on official missions. But the dolphins keep busy even when they aren’t on a mission. They help with security at Navy bases around the world. Or they prepare for future jobs.

“They will be ready if they are needed,” says Xitco. “Navy dolphins and sea lions are always on duty.”

Illustration by Marybeth Butler Rivera

  1. Which details support the idea that the beluga whale mentioned in the first paragraph could be a spy?
  2. How do dolphins help the Navy?
  3. Explain how dolphins use sound to “see” underwater. Include information from the sidebar “How It Works” to support your response.
  1. Which details support the idea that the beluga whale mentioned in the first paragraph could be a spy?
  2. How do dolphins help the Navy?
  3. Explain how dolphins use sound to “see” underwater. Include information from the sidebar “How It Works” to support your response.

Close-Reading Questions

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