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Navy dolphin discovers ancient naval torpedo

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 21st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Mankind's closest finned friend has been getting a lot of work in naval operations. Just recently, a Navy dolphin training to look for mines off the coast of San Diego found a museum-worthy 19th-century torpedo on the seafloor.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic online) - The brass-coated, "steampunk-like" wonder of technology was one of the first self-propelled torpedoes used by the U.S. Navy. Only 50 Howell torpedoes were made and only one other example has been recovered, which currently resides at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington, outside of Seattle.

The torpedo, measuring 11-feet-long weapon was discovered in March during a mine-hunting exercise conducted by the Space and Naval warfare Systems Center Pacific was conducting with bottlenose dolphins.

"Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to man. They can detect mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor that are acoustically difficult targets to detect," operations supervisor Braden Duryee, of the SSC Pacific Biosciences Division, said in a statement.

Using their natural sonar, called echolocation, dolphins determine the size and shape of underwater objects by sending out a series of clicks that bounce off their targets and "echo" back to them.

The marine mammals can be trained to report what they have found to human beings using "yes" or "no" responses. Handlers can then investigate what the dolphins find by sending the animals to mark an object's location with a weighted buoy line.

One of the dolphins indicated to its handler that it had detected a mine-like target. Officials quickly acknowledged that they were upon a very rare artifact.

"It was apparent in the first 15 minutes that this was something that was significant and really old," Christian Harris, operations supervisor for the SSC Pacific Biosciences Division, said in a statement. "Realizing that we were the first people to touch it or be around it in over 125 years was really exciting."

The missile, the Howell torpedo had a 132-lb flywheel that would be spun prior to launch. With a warhead filled with 100 lbs of gun cotton, the weapon had a range of 400 yards and could reach speeds of 25 knots, military officials said.

"It was the first torpedo that could be released into the ocean and follow a track," Harris said. "Considering that it was made before electricity was provided to U.S. households, it was pretty sophisticated for its time."

The torpedo is being kept in a tank of water to prevent erosion on its surface. The historical weapon will then be shipped to the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard.

The U.S. military may begin retiring its dolphins in 2017 in favor of cheaper mine-hunting robots.

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