Rare old torpedo found by unusual divers

Tony Perry / Los Angeles Times /

Published May 20, 2013 at 05:00AM

SAN DIEGO — In the ocean off Coronado, 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 or an invitation to meet the admirals at the Pentagon — although they might get an extra fish for dinner or maybe a pat on the snout.

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 after the surprising discovery.

While not as well known as the Gatling gun and the Sherman tank, the Howell torpedo was hailed as a breakthrough when the U.S. was in heavy 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 the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Wash.

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.

Marine mammals have been trained at the Navy’s Point Loma facility since the 1960s.

Several species were tested before the Navy settled on the bottlenose dolphin and the California sea lion. Dolphins, in particular, have deep and shallow diving capability, great eyesight and a biosonar system that scientists admire but don’t fully understand.

At the Point Loma facility, 80 dolphins and 40 sea lions are being trained for mine detection, mine clearing and swimmer protection. When the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq in 2003, dolphins were rushed to the Persian Gulf to patrol for enemy divers and mines. Dolphins guard U.S. submarine bases in Georgia and Washington state.

The dolphins have found unexpected things in the past, including a mine-shaped lobster trap. But a torpedo that was more than a century old and that the divers and trainers needed to consult explosives experts — and Google — to identify?

“We’ve never found anything like this,” said Mike Rothe, who heads the marine mammal program, his voice full of admiration for the marine mammals. “Never.”