Trained Navy Dolphins Discover Rare 19th Century Torpedo
May 20, 2013

Dolphins Working For The Navy Discover Rare 19th Century Torpedo

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The US Navy has recovered an exceptionally rare artifact off the coast of Coronado, California — and if that wasn´t enough, the item in question was actually discovered not by humans, but by trained dolphins.

The find was a rare 19th century Howell torpedo, and according to The Huffington Post it is one of only 50 ever manufactured and only one of two still in existence. It was found by dolphins which were reportedly being trained to locate underwater mines and other objects undetectable to technology.

Credit for the discovery was given to dolphins named Ten and Spetz, explained John Johnson of USA Today content partner Newser. The torpedo, which no longer functions due to the large amount of time it spent in the ocean, is currently being cleaned and will soon go on display at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, he added.

A specialist with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific told Johnson that dolphins “naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to man,” and the head of the Navy´s marine mammal program added that they had “never found anything like this” before now.

The only previously located Howell torpedo is on display at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington, said Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry. The 11-foot-long torpedo was made of brass, spun to 10,000 rpm before launch, traveled at a speed of 25 knots and had a range of 400 yards, he added.

After experimenting with the design for a fly-wheeled torpedo for several years, Lieutenant Commander John A. Howell received authorization from the US Naval Board to build a single torpedo for testing in 1877, John Pentangelo, Curator of the Naval War College Museum, explained back in August 2011.

“As these initial tests utilizing centrifugal pump propulsion were unsuccessful, Howell set out to design an improved model propelled by conventional propellers,” Pentangelo said. “In 1884, after receiving a substantial Congressional appropriation to purchase automobile torpedoes, the Navy Board recommended Howell's newer design.”

“On August 5, 1885 the Navy conducted the first test of three new Howell torpedoes in Newport Harbor,” he added. “Initial testing was unsuccessful (the first two sank) and caused a delay. Once testing resumed in Lake Michigan (the clear water made recovery easier), performance improved and the Howell became the first automobile torpedo issued to the fleet. The Hotchkiss Ordnance Company in Providence manufactured the torpedoes.”

As for the marine mammals that made the discovery, Perry reported that they have been trained at the Navy's Point Loma facility since the 1960s. Military officials tested several different species before settling on two — the bottlenose dolphin and the California sea lion. The dolphins were selected largely because they possess both deep and shallow diving capability, excellent eyesight, and a unique and enigmatic biosonar system, he added.

“To train the dolphins, Navy specialists sink objects of various shapes in rocky and sandy undersea areas where visibility is poor. The shapes mimic those of the mines used by US adversaries,” the Los Angeles Times writer said. “A dolphin is then ordered to dive and search. If it finds something, it is trained to surface and touch the front of the boat with its snout. If it has found nothing, it touches the back of the boat.”