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Bill Roberts: Dolphin program brings new perception

For more than 60 years, the U.S. Navy has used dolphins to detect underwater mines. It is a successful and cost-effective program that is now threatened by budget cuts. It is a threat made all the more mystifying by the fact that further studying dolphins could expand human understanding in so many ways.

An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times explained that the Navy’s requested budget for the coming fiscal year slashed spending on the dolphin program by $6.6 million – down to less than $1 million. At the same time, the Navy has spent $131 million over the last three years to acquire unmanned underwater vehicles to do the same task.

To put those costs in perspective, a Virginia class attack submarine costs more than $3 billion. The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, cost $133 billion. It is likely that on either of those projects, more was wasted than the dolphin program ever cost.

The Times piece was the work of Scott Savitz, an engineer with the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corp., whose “extensive research for the Navy, Coast Guard and other military services includes naval mine warfare.”

Savitz tells how the dolphins find mines and other objects with what he calls their “biological sonar.” And he describes their accuracy as “legendary.” The unmanned craft the Navy is buying – each of which costs roughly twice as much as the entire dolphin program – cannot match their success.

In an exercise off the coast of Virginia, dolphins found a missing unmanned vehicle that other such vehicles could not. Dolphins have found mines left over from World War II and mines buried in the seafloor. “During exercises,” Savitz says, “dolphins almost always locate every mine assigned to them.”

Savitz explains that this is in no way animal abuse. He cites the U.S. Undersea Naval Museum as saying the dolphins are well-treated. They often operate in the open sea, where they could easily swim away, but do not. Unlike their cousins in the wild, they are protected from predators, get medical care – and live longer. The are trained through positive reinforcement and are never punished. And he is careful to point out that no mine-hunting dolphin has been harmed by a mine. (Mines are designed to be triggered by ships, not mammals.)

So, why cut an inexpensive and effective program? Probably because, unlike the corporations that build the unmanned undersea vehicles, few dolphins hire lobbyists or make campaign contributions.

But beyond that tawdry proposition, why cut something with such enormous possibilities? What could we learn if instead of cutting the dolphin program, it were to get an increase in funding?

It is necessary to understand other people’s point of view to function in society on almost any level. What could we come to know if we were to better understand the way other species perceive the world?

Perhaps dolphins are inviting us to do just that. We should expand our involvement with them, not cut it.