US Navy Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

This Dolphin Is a Spy

The U.S. Navy trains dolphins to help on lifesaving missions around the globe.

As You Read, Think About: Why are dolphins a good choice to help the military?

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 board spotted a beluga whale. He noticed that the whale was wearing clips designed to hold a camera. Why would a whale need a camera? Could it be a spy?

Believe it or not, the answer might be yes! The whale also wore a harness that was marked “St. Petersburg,” which is a city in Russia. Experts in Norway suspect the whale was trained by the Russian military as a spy.

This may seem a bit fishy, but militaries around the world use whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals for covert missions. In fact, the U.S. Navy currently has more than 100 sea animals protecting our country from underwater threats.

The Best of the Best

The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal 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. Both animals are highly intelligent and easy to train.

And both can quickly adapt to different environments, such as shallow waters or deep seas.

“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.

But dolphins are better suited for many tasks because they rely on echolocation—the ability to “see” by using sound waves (see How It Works, below).

Illustration by Marybeth Butler Rivera

Dolphins on Patrol

The dolphins begin training at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California, when they’re a few years old. Human handlers show them how to look for and mark the locations of underwater mines. These explosive devices can seriously damage or destroy military ships. They can also be difficult for humans to detect.

But finding them is no problem for dolphins. With echolocation, they can easily navigate through dark, muddy waters. Dolphins can quickly dive hundreds of feet below the surface, much deeper than humans can.

Many dolphins also patrol the waters near Navy bases. They’re trained to spot intruders swimming in restricted areas.

“Dolphins are natural hunters,” Xitco explains. “We just change what they learn to hunt for.”

The military is developing underwater robots that one day may be capable of doing this work. But for now, Xitco says, even the most advanced machines are no match for dolphins.

Reporting for Duty

In the past 40 years, Navy-trained animals have patrolled the coasts of more than a dozen countries on official missions. Even when they aren’t on a mission, the Navy’s dolphins are always on duty.

“They will be ready if they are needed,” says Xitco.

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

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. How do dolphins use sound to “see” underwater? Explain using information from the sidebar “How It Works” as support.

Close-Reading Questions

Click the Google Quiz button below to share these Close-Reading Questions with your class.

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