In 1915, during World War One, in an attempt to defeat the German U-Boat threat, the British Royal Navy trained sea lions to find them. The submarines had been torpedoing and sinking far too many merchant and naval ships. It was thought that the sea lions would find them by chasing the noise of the propellers.
The training, however, was not quite as simple as people envisioned. They started in a swimming pool then progressed to a lake in Scotland until, eventually the whole ‘circus’ moved to Portsmouth in order to play with some actual subs. It all came to nothing.
A big problem was that the sea lions couldn’t differentiate between the propeller of the submarine and the propellers of ships on the surface. There were also problems with them chasing after shoals of fish and just disappearing for hours doing whatever sea lions do. Then, in warm water, they got a bit lethargic, fell asleep and forgot their mission. Needless to say the plan failed.
It had all been the idea of the brilliantly named Admiralty’s Board of Invention and Research. When asked where people were supposed to get sea lions who would willingly chase submarines, the Admiralty told them to look to circus performers. Which they did.
Joseph and Fred Woodward were the men they approached and they supplied a couple of sea lions only to have them returned when they didn’t work out. This didn’t phase the enterprising Woodwards one little bit. They merely changed the ads to read ‘The Actual Admiralty U-boat Hunting Sea-Lions.‘
Smart fellas, those Woodwards.