marine mammals program, navy dolphins, army dolphins
AP Photo/Denis Poroy
A trainer feeds U.S. Navy dolphin Koa at
the Navy Marine Mammal Program facility.

Marine Mammals Set to Guard US Submarine Base

December 09, 2009 01:00 PM
by James Sullivan
The Navy has approved a plan to step up anti-terrorism efforts at a Washington base by sending specially trained dolphins and sea lions into surrounding waters.

Flipper Joins the Navy

Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor near Washington’s Puget Sound is stepping up its security by employing aquatic mammals to patrol its restricted waters. The animals’ deployment in 2010 will mark the realization of a program that has been more than three years in the making.

The dolphins and sea lions to defend the base were trained as part of the Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. Working with human handlers, dolphins will search surrounding waters for rogue divers and swimmers. Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the program, told Scientific American that upon finding a diver, the dolphin will return to the handler and the handler will assess the severity of the threat.

“[T]he handler will place a strobe light or a noisemaker on the dolphin’s nose … The dolphin is trained to swim to the intruder, bump him or her from behind—which would knock the device off its nose—and then quickly swim away while military personnel take over.”

Sea lions are trained to carry cuffs in their mouths that clasp shut around a diver’s leg when bumped by the sea lion. Cuffs are attached to a tether, so military personnel can haul in the intruder after he is cuffed.

The sonar capabilities of dolphins have not yet been eclipsed by human technology. The lag in development of new sonar technology caused the 40-year-old marine mammal program to be resurrected in the late ’90s.

Background: Navy Marine Mammal Program

This would mark at least the second time dolphins have been used in the war on terror. In 2003, bottlenose dolphins were used by the U.S. Navy to detect underwater mines in the port city of Umm Qasr, Iraq.

The Navy Marine Mammal Program studies, trains and deploys marine mammals.  The program, which began in 1960, has found that dolphins are uniquely apt at locating sea mines.

PETA opposes the use of animals for military-related activities and reports that since 1965, at least a dozen animals have died in mine retrieval. The Navy claims that no marine mammals have been killed or injured in the line of duty.

Historical Context: Animals and war

In World War I, dogs were used to lay wire for telephone services with a roll of wire strapped to their backs. In Vietnam, dolphins were trained to attack enemy divers and bring them to Navy officials for interrogation in the South Vietnamese harbors.

The Pentagon is considering implanting sharks with remote control devices to track otherwise undetected vessels near the Florida coast. In an interview with New Scientist, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) stated, “remote-controlled sharks … are silent, and they power themselves.”

Mine detection dogs are responsible for half of all land mines detected and cleared in Afghanistan. “We train these dogs to sense explosives no matter if it is in a metallic or plastic container,” Shah Wali Ayubi, operations manager for the Mine Detection Dog Centre, told IRIN. “They are very efficient and cost effective.”

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