On May 21, 2002, one hundred miles off the coast of San Diego, the Navy research submarine USS DOLPHIN (AGSS-555) was cruising on the surface and recharging its batteries when a torpedo shield door gasket failed . The boat began to flood . High winds and eleven-foot swells drove seventy to eighty-five tons of seawater inside the ship . The volume of water reached an amount perilously close to the boat’s reserve buoyancy. Flooding shorted electrical panels and fires broke out. Only decisive and heroic actions of the crew could save her.
The rest of this story and many others chronicling DOLPHIN’s long, productive life will soon be told at the Maritime Museum of San Diego as this remarkable vessel moves into the next phase of her career and joins the fleet of historic ships on the San Diego’s Embarcadero. DOLPHIN’s history is unique and significant. She is the first US Navy vessel to be included in the Museum’s collection, and her many accomplishments mark major way points in underwater research and the development of the United States’ modern submarine fleet.
Launched in 1968 and decommissioned in 2007 , the last diesel- electric submarine in the Navy was responsible for many firs ts. DOLPHIN’s unique, extreme deep-diving capability set her apart and continually placed the vessel at the forefront of undersea naval research during her entire career. In November 1968, she set a depth record for operating submarines that still stands. In August 1969, she launched a torpedo from the deepest depth that one has ever been fired. The boat was designed to be easily modified both internally and externally to allow the installation of special military and civilian research and test equipment. This unique adaptability to various tasks at extreme depths made DOLPHIN a superior platform for many successful projects, including development of a Laser Imaging system of photographic clarity, the first successful submarine-to-aircraft two-way laser communication, development of a new Obstacle A avoidance Sonar system, development of a highly accurate target management system, and the first successful submarine-to-aircraft optical communications. She is presently outfitted consistent with her last active service: extensively deep water acoustic research, oceanic survey work, sensor trials, and engineering evaluations.
Transfer of the vessel from the Navy to the Maritime Museum was celebrated on September 18 with a Signing Ceremony in Washington DC, hosted by Congresswoman Susan Davis. The Museum was represented at the event by President Ray Ashley, Trustee Steve Mueller, and staff members Mark Montijo and Maggie Pitt-Walton. Other attendees included Congressman Brian Bil bray, Captain David Tungett and other Navy representatives, and Tim Runyon of NOAA.
Acquisition of USS DOLPHIN marks the culmination of an application and review process that has spanned more than a year and a half. Now the physical work begins. The vessel will be towed to a local repair facility where Museum staff, volunteers, and outside contractors will begin to adapt the boat for safe public access and interpretation. The Museum anticipates that DOLPHIN will be in place and open to the public by year’s end.