US Navy’s mine-hunting dolphins take to skies

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U.S. Navy’s bottlenose dolphins and their handlers were recently airlifted from Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, to the U.S. Naval Marine Mammal Program, San Diego.

The dolphins were moved to NAS Key West in March where they spent the last month before returning to San Diego.

“The dolphins need to be challenged and get experience in different waters,” said Brit Swenberg, an NMMP biological technician. “It also gets them used to traveling and working out of deployable vehicles.”

NMMP trains dolphins and sea lions to assist the Navy with locating mines and enemy swimmers.

The dolphins use their sonar and have the ability to make repeat dives without experiencing decompression sickness, according to Swenberg.

The flight back to San Diego presented numerous challenges for the pilots of the U.S. Air Force’s 301st Airlift Squadron because they needed to perform shallow take offs and landings, maintain an altitude of 30,000 feet, have a pressurization below 6,000 feet and ensure the cargo area was kept at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, all while flying as smoothly as possible for the dolphins’ comfort.

“The sensitivity of the cargo posed a unique challenge for us,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Alex Salogub, a 301st AS pilot and the aircraft commander for the mission. “We don’t normally need to worry about pressurization or temperature issues with most cargo. With the C-17’s flexibility and capability as a multi-role aircraft, we are (able to) successfully complete these unique challenges.”

Throughout the flight, the dolphins’ handlers splashed water on them, ensuring their skin didn’t dry out.

Army Capt. Drew Henschen, a NMMP veterinarian, checked the dolphins throughout the flight to ensure no issues developed with them. Henschen explained the marine mammal team came with a full vet clinic to tend to the dolphins’ well-being. The team was capable of performing ultrasounds, X-rays and endoscopies, if needed.

“They are expensive assets for the Navy and take a long time to train,” said Henschen. “We make sure the dolphins are well taken care of and maintain their health. They can only do their jobs to the best of their abilities, same as humans. We want to make sure we are sending healthy animals and they stay healthy.”

“As loadmasters, we always swap stories about what was the coolest thing you moved,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Suzannah Grant, a 301st AS loadmaster. “Most are helicopters or tanks, but how many people can say they moved dolphins?”

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