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Navy Dolphins Practice In Key West How To Find Mines In The Ocean

Constellation is an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, but she spends most of her time in the Pacific. She's part of the Navy's Marine Mammal program, based in San Diego.

For the last three weeks, though, Constellation and three of her fellow team members have been training in Key West. Their job is to find mines on the ocean floor and drop transponders that allow human crews to safely retrieve them.

"They're really good at finding stuff," said Bob Olds, business manager for the marine mammal program. "Probably their most impressive capability is their ability to find objects that are completely buried underneath the seafloor."

Credit Trice Denny / Naval Air Station Key West
Naval Air Station Key West
Dolphins that are part of the U.S. Navy's marine mammal program are transported from San Diego to Key West aboard a C-17 aircraft.

In recent years the Navy has taken the marine mammals to Hawaii for warm weather training in waters with reefs, but decided to go to Naval Air Station Key West this year.

"We like to introduce them to different environments as part of their training cycle," he said. "They get the warm water, they get the reef type environment, which we don't have in San Diego, the coral heads and things. We're working with their sonar so different sonar pictures are good for them to get trained up against them and here, you've got a pretty cluttered bottom when it comes to the coral heads."

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For Cmdr. John Fairweather — call sign Stormy — this team is just like the other special operations teams that he helps train at Naval Air Station Key West. Fairweather is the station's surface and subsurface operations officer, which means he's responsible for the 33,000 square miles of the Naval Air Station's range once people are out of the air and touch the water. Special ops teams like Navy SEALs often train in Key West.

"They're amazing, to watch these animals work and do the job that they do," Fairweather said. "They're part of the whole team of special operations and they have their niche to fill."

That niche is one that some people hope will soon be filled by machines, not animals. Rick Trout is a former Navy dolphin trainer who lives in the Keys and has organized rallies outside the training area in San Diego.

"We've got better technology," Trout said. "And Lord knows, we've got to save our tax dollars and put them towards good national security instead of depending on Flipper for national security."

Olds says machines will eventually replace the marine mammals — but the technology isn't there yet.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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