Playing Fetch with Pilot Whales: The Navy’s Project Deep Ops

Back in June, we published a post about animals in the military. It featured war dogs, bat and pigeon bombs, and monkey saboteurs. We thought we’d covered everything, but almost as soon as that post was published, we digitized a film for our research room that highlights torpedo-retrieving whales.

One of these whales is Ahab.

Ahab, a 5,500-pound killer whale, recovers a piece of inert ordnance using an acoustic pinger to guide him during the Deep Ops project. The whale is also equipped with a grabber device and a hydrazine system to allow the object to float easily to the surface.

Ahab, a 5,500-pound killer whale, recovers a piece of inert ordnance using an acoustic pinger to guide him during the Deep Ops project. The whale is also equipped with a grabber device and a hydrazine system to allow the object to float easily to the surface. NAID 6394385.

Ahab, along with another orca named Ishmael and two pilot whales named Pip* and Morgan, was part of the US Navy’s Project Deep Ops. In 1969 the Naval Undersea Center in Hawaii carried out this research program “designed to determine first, the maximum deep dive capabilities of trained whales wearing harnesses and carrying hardware and, second, the feasibility of using these animals to mark and recover pingered objects from the open ocean.”

The Navy was looking for more reliable ways to recover lost experimental and exercise ordnance from its ocean test ranges. Objects at a depth less than 300 feet could sometimes be recovered by human divers, while unmanned submersibles could reach depths of 2,500 feet. However, the use of humans or submersibles depended on mild sea and weather conditions. It was believed that whales might be able to dive up to 3,000 feet to retrieve objects in much rougher conditions.

NAID 6394387 and NAID 6394386

Project Deep Ops concluded that whales could be trained to assist in Naval retrieval tasks, even in the open ocean (although Ishmael did escape during an open ocean exercise and was never seen again). Some of the whales were successfully able “to carry and deploy a hydrazine lift recovery system to a 1000-ft depth.” The report recommends continuing the project with a focus on pilot whales, rather than orcas.

The Navy completed A Technical Film Report on Project Deep Ops in 1972 to provide an overview of the project activities. The pilot whale Morgan is the star of the film, demonstrating his training activities and open ocean retrieval of objects.

*Pip died of a lung infection in 1970 after ten months of training.

About Heidi Holmstrom

Heidi works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
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3 Responses to Playing Fetch with Pilot Whales: The Navy’s Project Deep Ops

  1. Fascinating. Wonder if the whales bargained for health care benefits and vacation days… They worked very hard ( and they seemed so human – probably why we don’t have such programs today?).

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    • Frida says:

      We do have such programs, not with killer whales and pilot whales, but with bottlenose dolphins. Few facilities in the world house more dolphins than the US navy. (SeaWorld has 140 spread over four parks, Dolphin Discovery has 135 dolphins in 14 locations around the Caribbean, and the navy has 83 of them.)

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