Flipper, the TV star dolphin, never had such a serious assignment as the marine mammals trained at the US Naval Base at Point Loma California. Dolphins have been used for years to locate underwater mines. Their lives have been at risk, but now their tenure is also, as robots have grown more sophisticated.

Some of the dolphins scheduled to be displaced by 2017 will continue to serve the military as port security personnel along with sea lions comparatively trained. Also because the sleek, intelligent animals have extraordinary eyesight, a sophisticated sonar ability, and have a physiology that allows them to dive to 500 feet without incident, they will continue to be used to retrieve questionable objects from the ocean floor.

Pinger attached to Navy dolphin in Persian Gulf. Photo Credit: US Navy

Since the 1950?s, ocean going mammals have been used to watch for and trap enemy divers and to mark the location of mines. Now a 12 foot torpedo shaped, unmanned underwater robot which can be placed in service relatively quickly will supplant the dolphin whose training period extends to seven years.

Unmanned underwater vehicle, the Navy Kingfish, is aimed at replacing dolphins in search for mines

The unmanned vehicle was developed by Space and Naval Warfare Systems engineers in Point Loma. Named Kingfish, it can run for 24 hours underwater. It is programmed to collect information on the underwater scene. First demonstrated publically in the Persian Gulf, the Kingfish project program?s cost has not yet been compared to that of using marine mammals which require training. feeding, and care. Prior to 1989, the Navy captured and utilized wild dolphins, but since has filled its ranks with animals they have bred in captivity.

Those soon to be out-of-work dolphins may be reassigned to find bombs hidden on the bottom of a body of water, according to Mike Rothe, head of the biosciences division at the Navy?s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific in San Diego.

For a job well done, the dolphins are rewarded with sardines, herring, smelt and squid. The robot?s motivation is yet to be determined.