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Navy dolphins find rare torpedo built in the late 1800s

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 5:54 p.m.
A U.S. Navy-trained dolphin named Ten, with mammal handler AM-3 Shawn McDonald, discovered a 19th-century torpedo in San Diego Bay, where the bottlenose dolphin is part of a program to detect mines and enemy divers. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
U.S. Navy
Undated handout photo of a Howell Torpedo at the Naval Undersea Museum in Washington, DC. In the ocean off Coronado, a Navy team has recently discovered a relic worthy of display in a military museum: a torpedo of the kind deployed in the late 19th century, considered a technological marvel in its day. The so-called Howell Torpedo was discovered by bottlenosed dolphins being trained by the Navy to find undersea objects, including mines, that not even billion-dollar technology can detect.

SAN DIEGO — In the ocean off Coronado, Calif., a Navy team has discovered a relic worthy of display in a military museum: a torpedo of the kind deployed in the late 19th century, considered a technological marvel in its day.

But don't look for the primary discoverers to get a promotion — although they might get an extra fish for dinner.

The so-called Howell torpedo was discovered by bottlenose dolphins being trained by the Navy to find undersea objects, including mines, that not even billion-dollar technology can detect.

“Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to man,” Braden Duryee, an official at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific said.

The Howell torpedo was hailed as a breakthrough when the United States was in competition for dominance on the high seas. It was the first torpedo that could truly follow a track without leaving a wake and then smash a target, according to Navy officials.

Only 50 were made between 1870 and 1889 by a Rhode Island company before a rival copied and surpassed the Howell's capability.

Until recently only one Howell torpedo was known to exist, on display at a museum.

Meant to be launched from above the water or submerged torpedo tubes, the Howell torpedo was made of brass, 11 feet long, driven by a 132-pound flywheel spun to 10,000 rpm before launch. It had a range of 400 yards and a speed of 25 knots.

Its specifications seem primitive today, but in the late 1800s, it was a leap forward in military armament.

“Considering it was made before electricity was provided to U.S. households, it was pretty sophisticated for its time,” said Christian Harris, operations supervisor for the biosciences division at the Systems Center Pacific.

At the Point Loma facility, 80 dolphins and 40 sea lions are being trained for mine detection, mine clearing and swimmer protection. When the United States led an invasion of Iraq in 2003, dolphins were rushed to the Persian Gulf.

If a dolphin finds something, it is trained to surface and touch the front of the boat with its snout.

When a dolphin named Ten surfaced from a shallow-water dive last month and gave the signal, Navy specialists were nonplused. “It went positive in a place we didn't expect,” said Mike Rothe, who heads the marine program.

A week later, a dolphin named Spetz did the same thing in the same area. This time, the dolphin was ordered to take a marker to the object.

“We've never found anything like this,” said Rothe, his voice full of admiration.

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