Aug. 16, 2007
SUMMER PHOTO GALLERY
When the Brigade of Midshipmen gathers together at the U.S. Naval Academy this week for the first time since Commissioning Day in May, one of the most common questions asked from one to another will be the same one overheard during the opening days of classes by students at grade schools, high schools and other universities across the country: What did you do over the summer?
For students at the Naval Academy, the answer to this question goes beyond the typical summer pastimes for a college student. In addition to partaking in traditional summer activities such as spending time with their family or trips to the beach, midshipmen also spend part of their summer on a "cruise" which is used to help introduce different aspects of the Navy and Marine Corps to their future officers. Depending upon their interests, this "cruise block" could be spent sailing into a port halfway around the world aboard an aircraft carrier, receiving the chance to fly in a jet while at a naval air base or spending several weeks at a Marine base.
Despite having the opportunity to do any of those aforementioned activities, Navy volleyball players Nikki England (Sr., Colorado Springs, Colo.) and Marissa Watson (Jr., Redondo Beach, Calif.) instead chose for their cruise block the opportunity to work with the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP) in San Diego, which allowed them to assist in the Navy's training of dolphins and sea lions.
Today's NMMP received its beginning in the late 1950s when the Navy began studying attributes of marine mammals -- such as how dolphins move in the water -- to improve torpedo, ship and submarine designs. Eventually it was determined these mammals might be able to assist Navy divers in their duties, which led to the program now being placed in the Biosciences Division of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego.
Additionally, the NMMP is an accredited member of both the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the Association and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International. The sole focus of these two groups is to protect and enforce the standards of care for the marine mammals.
England and Watson each had their interest in the NMMP peaked after hearing from those who assisted the program last summer.
"Oceanography majors in the Class of 2007 gave a presentation on their experiences last summer," said England. "The Navy Marine Mammal Program was one that interested me the most because of its complexity and involvement with dolphins and sea lions."
"I would receive hands-on training with dolphins and sea lions," said Watson. "I didn't think I would have this opportunity again."
A typical day begins for the NMMP staff and its interns at 7 a.m. when the teams find out which mammals they will be working with for the day. Once routine evaluations of the mammals are completed, the day is spent training them in a very similar way to that provided by handlers at places such as the Baltimore Aquarium or at Sea World parks across the country. In fact, the NMMP has been one of the industry leaders in pioneering training techniques. The most proven techniques used are that of positive reinforcement, which is basically rewarding correct responses while ignoring incorrect one, and repetition.
To be considered "fleet ready" the mammals need to be reliable, consistent, dependable, not hesitant and work successfully with different trainers.
Most of the time, England and Watson were only able to observe what was taking place in the pools or open water pens or assist the trainers from the pool deck.
"Helping the trainers feed the animals and being part of the training exercises was beyond anything I could have imagined," said Watson. "It is one thing to be at Sea World and toss some fish to a dolphin, but it is another to actually contribute to their growth and development."
After some time, however, England and Watson were allowed to enter the water and work directly with the mammals.
"Being able to jump into the water for the first time with one of the dolphins was an amazing experience and feeling," said Watson. "It was incredible to be that close to one. They are so powerful and graceful underwater. At first it was very nerve-racking knowing I was now in their environment (a bottlenose dolphin can grow to be nearly nine feet tall and weigh close to 500 pounds), which left me powerless when compared to their abilities in the water. After a while, though, it was just exhilarating being part of something that is so important to the Navy."
"The most memorable moment during my internship was the first time I entered the water with a dolphin," said England. "Dolphins don't look very large when you're out of the water, but once you're on their level in the water they are quite large and powerful.
"My first thought upon getting into the water with a dolphin was 'Wow, if they decide they don't want to cooperate they could do some serious damage.' I was slightly hesitant to get close at first, but by the time I was finished I was taking rides on dorsal fins and doing all kinds of tricks requiring close contact with a dolphin."
Many instances during their three weeks with the program helped explain while some of the trainers working there have degrees in psychology.
"Dolphins are a lot like humans," said Watson. "They all have different personalities, likes and dislikes, respond differently and sometimes need a timeout."
"There were frustrations for all of us if one mammal didn't want to cooperate, which meant the entire day's schedule had to be changed," said England.
Even though her summer was spent in the water with the mammals, Watson feels her time spent with the NMMP will benefit her when she graduates and is commissioned as an officer in 2009.
"Being a leader in the military can come in all different shapes and forms," said Watson, who currently is leaning towards becoming a surface warfare officer. "Working with the dolphins and sea lions was challenging, but also was one of the most rewarding feelings. Not only was it amazing to work with the mammals, it also taught me how to really focus on details and maintain a positive outlook during every exercise."
With their internship now done, the duo has a better appreciation for a little-known, yet vital program within the Navy.
"Going into this internship I expected to learn more about the Navy's use of marine mammals and how that might affect me as a future naval officer," said England. "My experiences more than exceeded my expectations."
"It was great to be able to see how these mammals are helping the Navy and Marine Corps," said Watson.
"It sure was a lot different than flying a plane or spending time on a ship!"