A handler rewards a bottlenose dolphin in Little Creek, Va. Mine-detecting dolphins are expected to retire in 2017. (MC1 Bruce Cummins / Navy)
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One Navy community set to retire in the next five years won't be worried about COLA charts or Tricare.
The service's fleet of mine-detecting, bottlenose dolphins is expected to end its service by fiscal 2017, said Ed Ebinger, deputy head of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Branch. If technology progresses as expected, an unmanned underwater vehicle will replace the dolphins, he said.
The Navy has about 24 dolphins that search for mines, particularly those covered by sediment on the bottom of the sea.
Dolphins locate buried mines through sonar, which bounces sound waves off the ocean floor. In the past, gadgets have relied on visual detection. But technology is catching up to the dolphins and UUVs can be equipped with a low-frequency broadband sonar, Ebinger said.
"The dolphins are phenomenal. Even with technology, we'll probably never come up with the ... level of intelligence to discern all of those things," he added.
But with mammals come added responsibilities.
Dolphins need constant care, while robotic vehicles can be stored on a shelf for months with no maintenance, Ebinger said.
In addition to being time-consuming, keeping Flipper fed and cared for is expensive — the Navy spends more than $20 million a year on its marine mammals. This includes its mine-detecting dolphins, plus more than 50 additional dolphins and about 30 sea lions used for other tasks, such as underwater object recovery and diving.
These missions will continue, Ebinger said, and only the mine-detectors will retire.
When it comes to mine-detecting, dolphins do have limitations.
Although they are very good at detection in specific locations, they can't travel as far as robots. And robots don't require the crewed support boat that dolphins do, Ebinger said.
He acknowledged that developing and maintaining UUVs will be costly at first, but said these costs will decrease over time.
The Navy will care for the retired dolphins throughout their lives, Ebinger added.
"They won't be doing shows at SeaWorld," he said.
Dolphins live between 30 and 50 years, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.