USS Dolphin (AGSS-555)

USS Dolphin (AGSS-555) was the United States Navy's only operational diesel-electric, deep-diving, research and development submarine. Her keel was laid down on 9 November 1962 at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, Maine. The first arc was struck by Merton Watts, assistant chief design engineer. She was launched on 8 June 1968 sponsored by Mrs. Daniel K. Inouye, and commissioned on 17 August 1968 with Lieutenant Commander J.R. McDonnell in command. She is presently berthed at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, San Diego (SPAWAR (SSC SD)) Pier 160. Despite her recent repair and upgrade, Dolphin was decommissioned on 15 January 2007 and was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on the same date.


The single most significant technical achievement in the development of Dolphin is the pressure hull itself. It is a constant diameter cylinder, closed at its ends with hemispherical heads, and utilizes deep frames instead of bulkheads. The entire design of the pressure hull has been kept as simple as possible to facilitate its use in structural experiments and trials. Hull openings have been minimized for structural strength and minimum hull weight, in addition to eliminating possible sources for flooding casualties. The submarine has no snorkel mast; her one hatch must be open while her diesels are running.


Employed by both civilian and Navy activities, Dolphin is equipped with an extensive instrumentation suite that supports missions such as acoustic deep-water and littoral research, near-bottom and ocean surveys, weapons launches, sensor trials, and engineering evaluations.

Because she was designed as a test platform, Dolphin can be modified both internally and externally to allow installation of up to 12 tons of special research and test equipment. The submarine has internal and external mounting points, multiple electronic hull connectors, and up to ten equipment racks for project use.

Service Record

In August 1969, Dolphin launched a torpedo from the deepest depth that one has ever been fired. Other examples of Dolphin's work include

  • first successful submarine-to-aircraft optical communications
  • development of a Laser Imaging system of photographic clarity
  • development of an Extreme Low Frequency (ELF) antenna for Ohio-class submarines
  • evaluation of various non-acoustic ASW techniques
  • evaluation of various low probability of interception active sonars
  • first submarine launch of a mobile submarine simulator (MOSS) system
  • first successful submarine test of BQS-15 sonar system
  • development of highly accurate (10 cm) towed body position monitoring system
  • development of a new Obstacle Avoidance Sonar system
  • development of a highly accurate target management system
  • evaluation of a possible "fifth force of nature"
  • first successful submarine-to-aircraft two-way laser communication

Dolphin was overhauled in 1993.

In the late 1990s, Dolphin tested a new sonar system. As a result of Dolphin's efforts, this new system will now be retrofitted into the fleet.

Abandonment at Sea Incident

On 21 May 2002, at about 1130 PDT, while operating approximately off the coast of San Diego, California, Dolphin was cruising on the surface, recharging its batteries, when a torpedo shield door gasket failed, and the boat began to flood. Due to high winds and 10 to swells in the ocean, approximately 70 to 85 tons of seawater entered the ship, an amount perilously close to the boat's reserve buoyancy. The flooding shorted electrical panels and started fires.

Chief Machinist's Mate (SS) John D. Wise Jr., realizing what needed to be done, dove into the 57-degree water of the flooded pump room. Not knowing if the room's equipment had been secured, and with less than a foot of breathable space in the compartment, he ensured the seawater valves were lined up, allowing the de-watering to commence. Once the valves were aligned, he remained in the pump room for more than 90 minutes in order to keep a submersible pump from becoming clogged. His courageous efforts prevented the loss of the ship and crew. Wise received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his efforts.

After 90 minutes, Commander Stephen Kelety, Dolphin's commanding officer, ordered the crew of 41 and two civilian Navy employees to abandon ship. The Oceanographic Research ship McGaw was operating in the vicinity and immediately responded.

The fire and flooding was beyond the ability of the crew to control so they were evacuated by small boat to McGaw after the submarine hatches had been secured. All crewmembers were safely recovered with only a few minor injuries. Two crewmembers were recovered from the water by United States Coast Guard helicopter during the transfer. McGaw transported the crew to San Diego.

The quick response of the crew placed the submarine in a stable condition. Thach (FFG-43) came alongside Dolphin and rescued several crewman from the water but the seas were too rough for full recovery or towing operations. Submarine Support Vessel Kellie Chouest got underway from San Diego early on 22 May to assist in the recovery assessment. Dolphin was towed back to San Diego the following day.

The last time an American submarine caught fire and was abandoned was in 1988, when the diesel sub Bonefish lost three sailors in a battery compartment fire.


Dolphin underwent three and a half years of repairs and upgrades at a cost of $50 million, then completed sea-trials during the summer of 2005 and returned to her duties for one year.

In mid-2006, the Navy decided to retire Dolphin, citing the $18 million her operations cost annually. She was deactivated on 22 September 2006, and decommissioned and struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 15 January 2007. ex-Dolphin was officially transferred to the Maritime Museum of San Diego in September, 2008. She is expected to open to the public by the end of the year.

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