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US Navy Howell Torpedo Discovered by Dolphins

By Blair Atcheson

(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy, MC2 David Cothran)

In March 2013, during a routine training exercise, dolphins in the U.S. Navy's Marine Mammal Program made a surprising discovery: a rare 19th-century torpedo. While working off the coast of San Diego, California, two dolphins indicated the presence of an unknown buried object. Subsequently investigated and recovered by Navy divers, the object turned out to be a 110-year-old Howell torpedo developed by the U.S. Navy. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pac) contacted the Naval History & Heritage Command's (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) about the discovery. Shortly thereafter, arrangements were made to transport the artifact to NHHC's Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory in Washington, D.C., for stabilization and conservation treatment.

The U.S. Navy has worked with dolphins for many years and established an entire program, aptly named the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP), dedicated to the study, training and care of marine mammals, under the direction of the Biosciences Division at SSC Pac. Through NMMP, bottlenose dolphins are trained to search for, detect and mark underwater objects, some of which may pose a threat to Navy divers, vessels and the general public.

The Navy recognized that not only are dolphins capable of making repeated deep dives, they also have highly sophisticated biological sonar capable of finding underwater objects that are acoustically difficult to detect even by the most modern equipment. Dolphins, and other marine mammals like the California sea lion, are uniquely effective at locating sea mines so they can be avoided or removed. When training or hunting for sea mines, a dolphin is given a specific search area and, once completed, reports back to its handler with a specific response if a target has or has not been detected. In this case, these skills led to an important and unexpected discovery in the field of underwater archaeology.

During what began as a daily training exercise, dolphins detected the presence of an unidentified mine-like object. Handlers were not aware of any known object in the area, but instructed the dolphin to mark the object's position on the seafloor. Navy divers investigated the site and recovered two sections of an unidentified torpedo. The third section, referred to as the nose cone that would have originally contained the warhead, was not found in the immediate area.

Preliminary research identified the object as a rare Howell torpedo that was once part of the U.S. Navy arsenal, based on the serial number stamped on the tail section: USN No. 24. NHHC Underwater Archaeology Branch, as managers of the Navy's sunken military craft and associated artifacts, was contacted about the discovery. Both the midsection and tail section were evaluated and cleared for safety by Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal. The torpedo sections were kept wet until transportation could be arranged to the NHHC Archaeology & Conservation Lab at the Washington Navy Yard.

Prior to the discovery of this latest example, only two Howell torpedoes were known to exist, located at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington, and Naval War College Museum in Newport, Rhode Island. NHHC Archaeology & Conservation Lab will focus on the stabilization, documentation, conservation, curation and eventual display of this rare piece of U.S. naval history.

History of the Howell Torpedo
The Howell torpedo was the first self-propelled torpedo developed by the United States Navy between 1870 and 1889. During this time, the strength of a nation was often defined by the power and reach of its navy. Consequently, torpedo development was at the forefront of establishing a formidable navy and the maritime powers of the day were clamoring for the latest advances in torpedo technology.

Until the development of the first automobile, or self-propelled, torpedo by Englishman Robert Whitehead in 1866, the use of a torpedo was more consistent with that of a modern mine. Just two years earlier, in 1864, Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy warship using a spar torpedo, heralding a new era of naval warfare and revealing the lethal potential of torpedo usage in combat. With Whitehead's new self-propelled design, a torpedo could attack the enemy directly rather than requiring delivery through close-quarters action. While other navies around the world were purchasing Whitehead's torpedo, the U.S. endeavored to create an American version of the self-propelled torpedo. The Naval Torpedo Station was established in 1869 in Newport for the development and research of torpedo technology. To continue this article please click here.

Blair Atcheson received a bachelor's in history from Texas A&M University. She is currently the historic preservation and outreach coordinator for the Underwater Archaeology Branch at the Naval History & Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.

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