Cool Jobs: Navy's Harris shares office with Flipper

Friday - 7/9/2010, 2:49pm EDT

Chris Harris, dolphin trainer, U.S. Navy

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

When you think of a government job, do you think of dolphins? Chris Harris does. He supervises the training of young dolphins for the Navy in San Diego as part of the Navy's Marine Mammal Program.

Harris is part of Federal News Radio's week-long special series, Cool Jobs in Government.

The dolphins Mr. Harris and his team work with are trained to use their natural sonar to scope out underwater objects. Part of the idea is to keep Navy boats and ships from running into explosive sea mines and other dangers.

"We train {them} to perform a number of tasks that can't be performed by any other means for the Navy {such as} the localization and identification of objects in the water that can't be found by any other mechanical means reliably."

The program works, he added, because the humans and dolphins establish lasting relationships early on. This allows the dolphins to work untethered and free in the ocean when they are ready.

"Many of the dolphins we have here are involved in mine-hunting exercises, where they go out and identify the presence of mines on the sea floor or in the waters, to ensure our sailors and Marines have a safe way to travel in and out of ports and harbors."

Dolphins are the animals of choice because they have a unique capability to create their own sonar that happens to be extremely accurate. This allows them to search wide areas in detail.

"They don't actually see {the items}. What they do is listen to the echoes from clicks that they produce in their melon, and when those echoes come back to them, it lets them know that there's something there. At that point, then, the dolphin returns to the boat and touches a small paddle on the side. That lets the handler know that the dolphin has found something of interest. We stop the boat. Then, the handler will give the dolphin a marker and the dolphin places the marker in a manner that lets us know right where the target is."

Dolphins are similar to humans in that learning for them is a lifelong process. Harris says the training starts when they are just weeks old and taught to trust humans and swim alongside their mothers and humans in a facility.

"If we have a good relationship with their mother, that relationship then transfers over to the young calf with his new handlers. After a couple of years, the dolphins then begin to participate in more complex exercises, like identifying targets and moving around, learning how to follow boats."

The animals are also taught about keeping themselves healthy.

"One of the primary responsibilities we have is teaching the dolphins to perform alongside us a series of husbandry behaviors, allowing them to be tractable and willing participants. We have a very aggressive preventative healthcare program. All of our dolphins learn how to give blood voluntarily {along with} other samples, {and} to participate in ultrasound-ography."

The humans, however, have to learn how to work with the dolphins, too.

Harris explains that most of the federal employees in this field are members of a guild, the International Marine Animal Trainers Association. They exchange copious amounts of information with each other around the world, and the U.S. Navy is the largest provider of peer-reviewed information about marine mammals across the globe.

So, are the dolphins as smart as their human counterparts? Harris says it's kind of hard to say.

"The animals are highly, highly adaptive and there's nothing better in the world at being a dolphin than a dolphin. So, when we try and compare them in terms of intelligence to other animals, we get into an area that's very hard to quantify. But, the dolphins are highly adapted, they are very intelligent and they carry with them a set of skills that makes them uniquely positioned to perform the tasks that the Navy needs them for."

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