Those Job-Stealing Robots Are Going After the Navy's Mine-Hunting Dolphins

It's a textbook case of not appreciating what you have until it's gone: the U.S. Navy plans to replace some of its mine-hunting dolphins with unmanned submersibles described as "12-foot torpedo-shaped robot[s]" by 2017. Were you even aware before this announcement that the Navy had a $28 million-dollar marine mammal program based in Southern California? Or that it began in the 1950s and at one point also included "killer whales and sharks"? If not, you must feel this loss all the more keenly.

From the Navy's Marine Mammal Program website:

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.

The Navy: striking a surprisingly whimsical note when it comes to finding and disabling sea mines! You have our attention. Now close the deal:

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).

And there it is. Those of you with lingering concerns about the well-being of these elite sleuths of the sea may note that the Naval Marine Mammal Program is an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums," which is dedicated to the "care and conservation of marine mammals."

Apparently over 100 dolphins and sea lions are currently employed by the NMMP to locate and identify mines and potential enemy divers, and only 24 of the dolphins will be replaced by robots over the next five years (they will be "reassigned to other tasks," a spokesman reports), so the end is not yet come. The sea lions will be unaffected by the change, in keeping with the generally more blasé approach of sea lions to life in general. While most of the Navy's marine mammals live and train in San Diego, some have been used to guard naval bases along the Pacific Coast and even been employed in the Middle East.

This news has significant implications for Navy vessels - according to UT San Diego, enemy mines have been responsible for "14 of the 19 Navy ships destroyed or damaged since 1950." Just as important, however, is this casual revelation:

The machines can be manufactured quickly, unlike the seven years it takes to train a dolphin for duty.

Seven years of training! As long as the patriarch Jacob labored for Laban in exchange for fair Rachel's hand in marriage; as long as the Seven Years' War (sort of); as long as the true bride in the fable worked to recover the Black Bull of Norroway; that is how long these gentle beasts spend learning to comb the sea for weapons and secrets.

[Image via AP]