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Harnessing the Leviathan: Science, Cetaceans, and the Cold War

Thu, March 30, 3:30 to 5:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Georgian


In late October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. Navy launched the Marine Mammal Program at Point Mugu, California. It began as a small affair, with veterinarian Sam Ridgway as its only full-time employee. Yet it signified a radical departure from the U.S. government’s previous polices toward marine mammals. Since the nation’s founding, U.S. officials had viewed cetaceans and pinnipeds as either pests or as resources to be rendered into commodities. Yet at Point Mugu, researchers approached them as sources of insight and potential military assets in the Cold War. Naval scientists examined, prodded, and dissected dolphins for hints at improved vessel design, sonar technology, and human underwater performance, and they soon trained sea lions, dolphins, and killer whales for tasks such as harbor defense and ordnance recovery. In the end, the program never approached the capacities depicted in Hollywood’s campy Day of the Dolphin (1973), but its animals did participate in war efforts, most notably in Vietnam in 1970 and the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991.

What does the Marine Mammal Program tell us about shifting views of nature and global power in the Cold War? How did it relate to the broader contest to control the ocean and its resources? What role did the U.S. Navy’s study and training of captive animals play in the charged mid-1970s debate over Soviet whaling? As such questions indicate, the Marine Mammal Program forms a nexus of key issues in late-twentieth-century environmental and foreign relations history. Drawing upon research in public and private collections, as well as interviews with top officials such as Ridgway, this paper will shed new light on this controversial (and ongoing) program.