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Navy-Trained Dolphins Find Rare Torpedo Off San Diego Coast

Above: Bottlenose Dolphins are among the top species in Navy's Marine Mammal Program.

Aired 5/21/13 on KPBS News.

Navy-trained dolphins have discovered a rare 19th-century torpedo off San Diego's coast.

Navy-trained dolphins have discovered a rare 19th-century torpedo off San Diego's coast.

The 130-year-old Howell Torpedo, one of the first self-propelled torpedoes developed and used by the U.S. Navy, was located off Coronado in early March during a mine-hunting exercise that the Space and Naval warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific) was conducting with bottlenose dolphins.


The Howell Torpedo was one of the first self-propelled torpedoes developed and used by the U.S. Navy in the late 1800s.

During the training, one of the dolphins reported the presence of something in an area away from the training field, said Chris Harris, operations supervisor for Space and Navy Warfare Systems’ Marine Mammal Program.

"When there’s an object of interest discovered, the dolphin comes over and touches the side of the boat in a manner that indicates a positive contact or a negative contact," explained Harris. "In this case the dolphins came over and indicated to the handlers on the boat “we found something, this is interesting, you’re gonna want to check this out."

Harris said a second dolphin then reported an object in the same location.

"At that point the determination was made to give the dolphins the marking apparatus to show us the location of the object," said Harris, "and that was when the object was discovered."

Harris said the fact that the torpedo was buried speaks highly to the unique capabilities of the dolphins.

"Their superb biological sonar allows them to find objects that can't be found by any other means," he said.

Dolphins can determine the size and shape of underwater objects by sending out a series of clicks that bounce off their targets and boomerang back to them, called echolocation.

Harris said the recovery dive team brought the torpedo to the surface and everyone was very surprised.

That's because the Howell Torpedo was developed by the Navy in the late 1800s and used by battleships until 1898. Only 50 were manufactured and just one other has been recovered.

The dolphins that made the discovery, named Ten and Spetz, are veteran animals, said Harris.

"Training the dolphins for this task is life-long learning," he said. "There's a basic certification that they go through before they can become provided to the Navy as an asset. Even after that, the training continues and they become more and more sophisticated."

The torpedo is being kept in a tank of water to prevent erosion. It will likely be shipped to the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard.


Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | May 21, 2013 at 9:10 a.m. ― 2 years ago

I wonder if this torpedo was armed and might still be dangerous after all this time.

I am just waiting for someone to cry about the dolphins being tortured...

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Avatar for user 'TimC'

TimC | May 21, 2013 at 10:18 a.m. ― 2 years ago

I'm surprised to find out that we had submarines and torpedo's off the coast of San Diego in 1883. Were we expecting a marine assult from Mexico?

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | May 21, 2013 at 10:36 a.m. ― 2 years ago

Imagine what kind of technology exists now that we won't know about for 50 years.

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Avatar for user 'hopeheadsd'

hopeheadsd | May 21, 2013 at 12:10 p.m. ― 2 years ago

Late 1800s? That is incredible.

On a side note, reminds me of Dr Evel asking for 'dolphins with frickin laser beams' :)

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