50 years ago, the U.S. Navy enlisted sea lions and other marine mammals

Excerpt from the December 22, 1973 issue of Science News

Sea lion playing a video game

Spike the California sea lion, a member of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, is trained to play a video game — part of research into cognitive enrichment for animals in the program.

Jaime Ciciora

Flipper joins the navyScience News, December 22, 1973

Porpoises, sea lions and even whales have been trained to retrieve dummy rockets and other objects from the bottom of the ocean…. The animals, guided by a homing device, would carry grappling hooks to submerged objects.… But whales became too expensive and kept running off to mate, so research now concentrates on smaller sea mammals such as porpoises.


Today, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, based in San Diego, trains bottlenosed dolphins and California sea lions to protect ships and harbors. Sea lions help retrieve equipment from the ocean floor, dolphins locate underwater mines and both species detect unauthorized swimmers. Animals in the program have also helped researchers understand dolphin echolocation, assess the impacts of human-generated noise on wildlife and more. Current projects are testing whether it’s possible to judge dolphins’ health based on their whistles and whether a video game system can provide Navy sea lions with cognitive enrichment.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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