Since 1959, the U.S. Navy has used marine mammals in aquatic missions from the Cold War to the war in Iraq. Dolphins’ diving abilities and biosonar have especially become important for identifying mines, locating enemy swimmers, and recovering assets. But as the Navy plans to phase out the use of marine mammals, their trained dolphins have become a resource for something else — studies on aging.
“The Navy's population of animals is really unique because they have this longitudinal data set for the length of their life,” says Forrest Gomez, director of conservation medicine at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, which provides veterinary services to the dolphins. “Human cutting-edge aging experts and researchers are very interested in that data set because it can tell so much.”
It might come as a surprise that human aging experts are interested in dolphin data, but these Navy dolphins are unique among captive and wild populations. They often live decades longer than their wild counterparts, and suffer diseases of aging that humans get. Some at the Naval Information Warfare Center-Pacific at Point Loma Naval Base in San Diego have even received procedures like cataract surgery.
“The Navy's population not only helps human health,” explains Gomez. “But we're also translating everything that we learned from this wonderful population to help better conserve dolphins that live in the wild.”
The main reason the Navy wants to phase out its marine mammal program is that comparable technology to accomplish these tasks may be available. But not everyone agrees that technological approaches beat using dolphins.
“From what I'm hearing, the answer is no,” says freelance reporter Gidget Fuentes, who wrote about the Navy’s program for Business Insider. “And the question is: Can they, will they, and when?”
If the Navy’s marine mammal program eventually ends, Navy officials have committed to caring for the animals until they die. With that possible date looming in the future, no new animals are being added, or bred, in the program. Some have still questioned whether keeping the remaining animals in captivity is in their best interest.
“It may depend on the marine mammal itself, their health, their age, and how their life was, in terms of interacting with humans,” says Fuentes. “[You] have trained them to always depend on the human for food. … How do you undo that instinct? … I think that's a good question that remains to be answered.”