Star Trek Guide

Star Trek: TNG's Enterprise Had Dolphin & Whale Crewmembers

Star Trek: The Next Generation's Enterprise employed sea animals for their navigation department. The U.S.S. Enterprise has always been a progressive workplace environment. In Star Trek's original series, Spock spearheaded the path for Vulcans in Starfleet, making a controversial career decision that upset his own father. Under Jean-Luc Picard's captaincy, the Enterprise was even more diverse. The synthetic being known as Data was one of Picard's must trusted crew members and the captain fought to defend his rights as a sentient being, while Worf's employment in Starfleet followed historically unhappy relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

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However, the employees aboard The Next Generation's Enterprise extend beyond humanoids altogether and deep into the ocean. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Kirk's Enterprise crew travel back to 20th century Earth with the intention of capturing a pair of whales. Their plan is to bring the animals back to the future in order to answer the call of a very distressed probe causing havoc on Earth. Much later (or much earlier, depending on your perspective), Star Trek: Discovery's titular ship is powered by a spore drive, using tiny sentient fungi to navigate and move through space instantaneously. Evidently, there is a lengthy history of Starfleet using animals and other life forms in their space-faring endeavors.

One example that often slips under the radar, however, is how The Next Generation's Enterprise used dolphins and whales in their navigation system. As pointed out by Aaron J. Waltke, producer of the upcoming animated Star Trek series on Nickelodeon, the 1991 Enterprise technical manual referenced a "Cetacean Navigation Lab," as well as an ops room, and lifeboats for the creatures in case of emergency. The manual specifies that 12 bottlenose dolphins were aboard the Enterprise along with a pair of Takaya's Whales who "supervised" the other animals. Presumably this involved warning them if they took too long for lunch.

Although The Next Generation understandably never showed the Enterprise's ocean navigation team on-screen, there are a few references including a door sign reading "Tursiops Crew Facility" in "We'll Always Have Paris" and Geordi La Forge asking the Fenergi Par Lenor if he'd "seen the dolphins" during "The Perfect Mate." Furthermore, season 3's "Yesterday's Enterprise" includes a scene where a crew member is told to report to "Cetacean Ops." This story largely takes place in an alternate timeline but given the allusions to dolphin crew members elsewhere, Cetacean Ops isn't necessarily something caused by the story's time traveling. Finally, season 7's "Genesis" includes mention of an aquatics lab on board the Enterprise.

Back in the real world, whales and dolphins are renowned for their navigational and communication abilities. Dolphin echo-location allows the creatures to "see" with an incredibly sophisticated long-distance sonar and various armed forces have attempted to harness these natural perks for their own ends. Although The Next Generation never delves into the mechanics of its sea-faring crew members, it's not beyond the realms of Star Trek's science fiction that Starfleet might've found a way to modify dolphin echo-location for use in space instead of the ocean. Theoretically, this would allow Starfleet's Galaxy-class ships to detect oncoming ships, asteroids, etc. that couldn't be picked up visually. Working purely with sound, the dolphins might've even been able to register cloaked enemy vessels.

Unfortunately, the difficulty in showing the Enterprise's Cetacean unit on-screen (as well as the sheer weirdness of the concept) meant these possibilities have gone largely unexplored in the world of Star Trek.But next time the Discovery's mushroom-fueled teleportation seems outlandish, it's worth remembering that Picard's Enterprise had dolphins and whales on the payroll.