An Interview With the Dolphin

Many were surprised when the U.S. Navy announced it was using dolphins for mine-sweeping in the war with Iraq. Even more were stunned when one of the dolphins went AWOL. Submerged reporter PAUL FORD gets the interview.

Takoma is one of the U.S. Navy’s five mine-sweeping dolphins currently deployed under Operation Iraqi Freedom. He recently made international headlines when, on his first mission, he went AWOL for two days. At the end of his unexplained absence, Takoma returned to his post, offering no explanation for his absence. In light of the special circumstances of his service, a threatened court-martial was dismissed and Takoma was returned to duty.

The Morning News spoke with Takoma on 31 March 2002, at 3:00 a.m. Iraqi time, after the dolphin came off a 19-hour mine removal shift. The following image was taken with a night vision camera during the interview.

Photo of the dolphin
Takoma, U.S. Navy Dolphin

The Morning News: Did you get anything?

Takoma: Skee ee nee ee klik nee klik ee.

TMN: I forgot to turn this on. I’m sorry.

Takoma:—translator on, turn it—there. Seven.

TMN: That’s a good run or a bad one?

Takoma: Very good. Tagging seven mines is a good run. We’re clearing a path for coalition vessels.

TMN: Your superiors are happy?

Takoma: Happier than they were.

TMN: Because these last few days…

Takoma: Not the best days.

TMN: You went AWOL.

Takoma: I did. I was under real pressure. Eat the fish, find the mine, go, go, go. No time to think, and then when I do think, it’s: What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Am I hurting the world or helping it? No Iraqi ever called me Flipper.

TMN: So you left.

Takoma: I was going to try to make it over to the canal and then seek asylum in the Seine. But it was a long way from home.

I think I could have made it. But then there are five of us, you know. Maybe someone else will get the mine meant for me. Maybe the shark will attack Bruce instead of Takoma, and Bruce’s kids grow up without someone to look up to, with no shoal model. So I go back, and they let me skate.

[long pause] I still am very uncertain about my part in all this. The recruiters, they say, join up and meet land mammals, they show you pictures of fish piled to the ceiling on porcelain plates. I’m young, haven’t seen more than a few reefs and some humpback whales. Of course I go.

TMN: There are 2,000 mine-sweeping monkeys that have been promised to the Iraqis by Morocco.

Takoma: See, that’s something people say, they go, ‘a monkey could do this job.’ I’m telling you something. You go to those minefields when they release those monkeys. You ever pour cherry Kool-Aid into a whale’s blowhole?

TMN: No.

Takoma: That’s what those monkeys are going to look like in that minefield. Just puffs of red mist. Chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, boom, poof. It takes brains to do this job, and flippers.

TMN: How is it in the boat?

Takoma: Tight. Packed like sardines.

TMN: At least you’re not packed like tuna—

Takoma: My uncle was killed in a tuna net.

TMN: I’m sorry.

Takoma: In any case, they changed my quarters, and now—

TMN:—why did they change them?

Takoma: They smelt crappie.

TMN: Do you have a favorite American opera?

Takoma: Porgy and Bass.

TMN: How is the war going from your perch?

Takoma: I need to mullet over.

TMN: [wiping brow, long exhale] Thank you. If you can sum it up: What did you learn from those days out of the Navy?

Takoma: I learned that duty comes first, duty to my comrade dolphins. You can’t be sole; you’ve got to be a grouper. But I also got a glimpse of something, when I tried to swim to France. Something I’d neglected inside of myself, but it was glimmering there. I think I saw what that was. Maybe it’s not something I can think about too much—too much to do, too many responsibilities—but I glimpsed it, and it’s inside of me. I’m not going to let it go.

TMN: What was that?

Takoma: A calling, a sense of self. A higher porpoise.


TMN Contributing Writer Paul Ford is the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, a novel that was originally serialized here on TMN. He was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and is now sole proprietor of (which has a Facebook group). More by Paul Ford