From cold waters to Cold War: The story of a Navy seal


Gunnar, left — shown with mate,  Selkie, at the National Zoo — died Friday at 38.  The pair and a third gray seal, Njal, were given to the zoo in 1979 after washing out of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. (Mehgan Murphy/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)
John Kelly
Columnist June 26, 2012

It was his curiosity that turned Gunnar into a Navy seal, and if, in the end, he washed out — if he didn’t have the right level of no-questions-asked obedience — well, those who knew him said he still retained a sense of calm and precision.

And his military service got Gunnar a comfortable retirement, including a place to live and three square meals a day: herring, butterfish, a tiny sardinelike fish called capelin and squid.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“He really liked squid,” Rebecca Miller said.

Rebecca met Gunnar in 2007, in her second year as an animal keeper at the National Zoo. Until his death Friday at age 38, Gunnar lived at the zoo’s Beaver Valley. Visitors knew him as the big mottled gray seal who basked on an artificial beach and zipped through the water, propelling himself with powerful back-and-forth sweeps of his tail. They probably didn’t know that he had been drafted into the Navy in 1973.

That was the year a Navy researcher in Iceland donned a waterproof rain suit and crawled toward a seal colony. He was looking for recruits for the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. The program dated from 1960, when Navy scientists studied how dolphins moved through the water, in the hopes of designing better torpedoes.

That research turned out to be a dead end, but in the process, the Navy realized that the dolphins’ sonar and their incredible intelligence might be useful. The Cold War was on, and all freedom-loving mammals were expected to do their part.

Dolphins were trained to detect floating mines and enemy frogmen. In 1965, a Navy dolphin named Tuffy carried messages and tools to aquanauts aboard Sealab II, a research station 200 feet down, off La Jolla, Calif. In Project Deep Ops, a pilot whale and two killer whales attached a device to experimental anti-submarine torpedoes that lifted them from the Pacific floor, 1,654 feet below the surface.

“The Day of the Dolphin,” a 1973 thriller starring George C. Scott, did for the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program what “The DaVinci Code” later did for the Catholic Church: convinced a lot of people that something nefarious was going on. In the film, dolphins are trained to attach a limpet mine to the president’s yacht.

On its Web site, the Navy insists that its marine mammals are not used for offensive purposes: “Since dolphins cannot discern the difference between enemy and friendly vessels, or enemy and friendly divers and swimmers, it would not be wise to give that kind of decision authority to an animal.”

Sea lions were added to the animal corps — they’re adept at tagging objects — and so, eventually, were seals.

Sea lions are in the Otariidae family. Gray seals are in the Phocidae family. “Phocids have front flippers that are better at manipulating things,” said Daryl Boness, who, before retiring to Maine in 2003, was curator of marine mammals at the National Zoo and knew Gunnar. “[The Navy was] trying to train the gray seals to do tasks that sea lions could not do, because of the different structure of the foreflippers.”

As the Navy researcher approached on that fateful day in 1973, most of the seal pups warily waddled away, but some hung back, curious. Gunnar — pronounced “Goonahr” — was among them. So were Njal, another male, and Selkie, a female. This inquisitiveness was enough to get them drafted. They were captured and shipped to San Diego to begin their training.

Gunnar and his comrades learned to do a few things — turn a wheeled valve, pick up a screwdriver — but “gray seals were not reliably trainable,” Daryl said.

As Rebecca put it: “Sea lions are like dogs, and seals are like cats: difficult to train, stubborn and aloof.”

So in 1979, the Navy donated the trio to the National Zoo.

Those who knew Gunnar said he retained some of his training. He was comfortable around humans and would willingly hold still while blood was drawn, no small thing in a creature weighing 500 pounds.

“He was kind of like a gentle giant,” Rebecca said. “He was very handsome. He just had really big, gentle eyes.”

Njal went to the Los Angeles Zoo in 1982 and died in 1996. That leaves Selkie — Gunnar’s mate, mother of his two pups — as the last veteran of the Cold War, cold water experiment.

To see a photo gallery of marine mammals at work, go to washingtonpost.com/local.

Send a Kid to Camp

Please consider a gift to Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids supported by readers of The Post. To make a tax-deductible donation, go to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says “Give Now,” and designate “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.

You can also support the camp — and treat your taste buds — by dining Wednesday at any Clyde’s restaurant. Order the local blackberry salad at a Clyde’s, the Hamilton or Old Ebbitt Grill or the asparagus salad at the Tombs, and the proceeds benefit Send a Kid to Camp.

To read previous John Kelly columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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