Obit of the Day: A Real Navy Seal
The United States Navy’s Marine Mammal Program (MMP) dates back more than 50 years. It started in 1960 with one dolphin who was studied for its hydrodynamics as the Navy attempted to design better torpedoes. No torpedo designs were forthcoming, but the natural intelligence of the dolphin was recognized as an untapped resource, especially during the Cold War when every possible military advantage was examined.
Within a few years, the Navy had trained a dolphin, named Tuffy, to deliver messages to SEALAB as well as locate lost divers. By 1967, MMP was fully established as a highly classified, black budget program. The Navy continued to study and train a wide variety of ocean species including Beluga and Pilot whales, orcas, and sea lions.
It was decided, in 1973, that the Navy would attempt to train Grey Seals. Three were captured off the coast of Iceland and returned to the U.S. for training. The seals were named Njal, Selkie, and Gunnar. By the time the Navy had finished training the threesome, the seals could use a screwdriver and turn a valve wheel.
But seals were “not reliably trainable.” Unlike their sea lion cousins who were compared to dogs in their ability to learn, “seals are like cats: difficult to train, stubborn, and aloof.” So Njal, Selkie, and Gunnar were sent to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. in 1979.
Njal was later moved to the Los Angeles Zoo in 1983 and died in 1996. Gunnar and Selkie would spend the next 33 years together and produce two seal pups. Sadly, Gunnar passed away on Friday, June 22, 2012. He was not yet 39 years old.
Selkie is now the last of the real Navy seals.
Additional sources: Wikipedia.org and the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program website
(Image of Gunnar, left, and Selkie is copyright of Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian Institution and courtesy of the Washington Post.)