On a recent trip to Sea World, I had an unexpected meeting with a retired sailor…a former member of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. Her name is Cascade, and she’s living out her retirement at Sea World.

Her trainer mentioned that Cascade used to protect nuclear submarines and did all kinds of interesting things for the U.S. Navy (USN). I suppose it isn’t a bad life for a dolphin. These mammals can live up to 30 years in the wild, but the trainers at Sea World said a few of dolphins live well into their 40s—largely because they don’t have to contend with sharks, and because the park has veterinarians on call for them whenever needed.

I also spoke to an acquaintance and USN veteran about this program, and he mentioned that Cascade may have been a bit of a troublemaker. Apparently not all dolphins turn out to be military material! According to him, some dolphins in the program require new homes because of their propensity for “doing their own thing.” He mentioned one dolphin disappeared during mating season. It was AWOL for two weeks before it returned to the program. He said some of these dolphins find a home at Sea World.

Here’s an excerpt from a previous article we published on the USN’s dolphin and sea lion program:

In the Fleet’s Operational Marine Mammal Systems (MMS), the Navy uses dolphins and sea lions to find and mark the location of underwater objects.

Dolphins are essential because their exceptional biological sonar is unmatched by hardware sonars in detecting objects in the water column and on the seafloor. Sea lions are used because they have very sensitive underwater directional hearing and exceptional vision in low light conditions.

Both of these marine mammal species are trainable for tasks and are capable of repetitive deep diving.

Some of the objects the animals find are expensive to replace. Others could present a danger to Navy personnel and vessels. The dolphins and sea lions work under the care and close supervision of their handlers and are generally trained for a particular operational capability called a “system.”