Navy Dolphins Turn Up a Rare 19th-Century Torpedo

Called a Howell torpedo, the old military relic was a marvel in its day, and only 50 were ever made

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Bottlenose dolphins working for the U.S. Navy discovered a rare 19th century torpedo off the coast of Coronado, Calif., while searching for underwater mines and other objects that evade technological detection. The brass torpedo is 11 feet long and weighs 132 pounds, and it could range 400 yards when launched. Called a Howell torpedo, the old military relic was a marvel in its day, the Los Angeles Times reports, and will likely find a home in a military museum.

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. Now a second has been discovered, not far from the Hotel del Coronado.

The dolphins that uncovered the long-lost treasure use a biosonar system more sophisticated than any modern technology can provide. When dolphins find an object of interest, they resurface and tap the front of their handlers’ boat with their snouts. Last month, a dolphin named Ten indicated something was submerged in the area where the torpedo was later discovered, though at the time its human handlers dismissed the signal since they didn’t expect to find any objects there. Last week, another dolphin named Spetz alerted its handlers to the same spot, and this time the humans paid attention.

Navy divers and then explosive-ordnance technicians examined the object, which was in two pieces, and determined that the years had rendered it inert. On one piece was the stamp “USN No. 24.”

The torpedo pieces were lifted to the surface and taken to a Navy base for cleaning and to await shipment to the Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard.

According the the LA Times, the divers had to consult both Google and military experts to reveal the identity of the ancient torpedo.

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