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article imageNavy dolphins find 19th century Howell torpedo off Calif. coast

By JohnThomas Didymus     May 19, 2013 in Technology
A US Navy dolphin has discovered a 19th century torpedo in deep water off the coast of San Diego, California, during an underwater mine detection training exercise. The 11-foot brass torpedo known as the Howell was built and deployed about 130 years ago.
The find is of great significance to military historians because it was one of the first self-propelled torpedoes ever built.
According to the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS), bottlenose dolphins with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific), trained to find and mark underwater objects difficult to detect using available technology, discovered the torpedo in March 2013 off the San Diego coast near Hotel Del Coronado during a routine mine-hunting exercise.
According to DVIDS, Braden Duryee, operations supervisor for the SSC Pacific Biosciences Division, said: "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."
The US Navy deployed the Howell torpedo between 1870 and 1889. DVIDS reports that the torpedo, developed by Lt. Cmdr. John A. Howell, between 1870 and 1889, was the first capable of following a track without leaving a wake as it homes in on a target. The torpedoes were considered important breakthrough in military technology at the time.
DVIDS reports Harris, said: “It was the first torpedo that could be released into the ocean and follow a track. Considering that it was made before electricity was provided to U.S. households, it was pretty sophisticated for its time."
According to the Los Angeles Times, the torpedo was made of brass and designed to be launched from above water or underwater in torpedo tubes. It was 11 feet long and driven by a 132-pound flywheel that was spun to 10,000 rpm before it was launched. It had a range of 400 yards and a speed of 25 knots and a warhead filled with 100 pounds of gun cotton.
Only 50 were made between 1870 and 1889 by a Rhode Island company, before another company began producing more advanced models. It was used by the US Navy until it was replaced by the Whitehead in 1898.
Until the the bottlenose dolphins found the torpedo, only one specimen was known to exist and it was on display at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington, the Los Angeles Times reports. Duryee said: "There were only 50 Howell torpedoes made, and we discovered one of the two ever found."
The US military has trained dolphins for underwater operations at the Point Loma facility since the 1960s. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Navy chose bottlenose dolphins because of their diving capability. They have a sophisticated bisonar system that engineers still do not fully understand.
The Los Angeles Times reports that 80 dolphins and 40 sea lions are being trained for mine detection, mine clearing and swimmer protection. The US Navy used dolphins to patrol the Persian Gulf for enemy divers and mines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Dolphins also guard US submarine bases in Georgia and Washington state.
The animals are trained to dive and locate objects with the shapes of known mines. When the dolphin finds an object that could be a mine it surfaces and touches the front of the boat with its snout, but if it finds nothing it touches the back.
A trained dolphin called Ten surfaced unexpectedly and touched the front of the boat. Mike Rothe, who heads the marine mammal program, said: "It went positive in a place we didn't expect."
DVIDS reports that at first Ten's handlers thought it had found an old tail section of an aerial drop mine. Another dolphin named Spetz also gave a positive signal a week later. Spetz was ordered to take a marker to the object it discovered.
Navy divers located the object and found it was an old inert torpedo broken in two pieces with "USN No.24" stamped on one of the pieces.
DVIDS reports Harris said: "It was apparent in the first 15 minutes that this was something that was significant and really old. Realizing that we were the first people to touch it or be around it in over 125 years was really exciting."
Duryee spoke admiringly of the dolphins: "The animals are very good at their job. We were just doing our daily training exercises with the animals, when one marked an object on the sea floor. About a week later, another animal marked the same object."
Further research showed that it was a 130-year-old Howell torpedo. Harris said: "The torpedo was in remarkably pristine shape, so to preserve it, Braden Duryee had the idea to submerge it into a tank of water to prevent it from breaking down in the surrounding oxygen."
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