Navy shows off terror-fighting dolphins
SAN DIEGO ” In a world of high-tech sensors and underwater robotics, Koa the bottlenose dolphin and others like her may still be the Navy’s best line of defense against terrorists in scuba gear.
“They are better than anything we have ever made,” said Mike Rothe, head of science for the Navy’s marine mammal program, which trains dolphins and sea lions to guard military installations.
About 75 dolphins and 25 sea lions are housed at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego Harbor as part of a Navy program to teach them to detect terrorists and mines underwater.
The base briefly opened its doors to the media Thursday for the first time since the start of the war in Iraq. The display came a few weeks after the Navy announced plans to send up to 30 dolphins and sea lions to patrol the waters of Washington state’s Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, which is home to nuclear submarines, ships and laboratories.
Both species can find mines and spot swimmers in murky waters. Working in unison, the dolphins can drop a flashing light near a mine or a swimmer. The sea lions carry in their mouths a cable and a handcuff-like device that clamps onto a terrorist’s leg. Sailors can then use the cable to reel in the terrorist.
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The Navy’s sea mammal program started in the late 1950s and grew to comprise 140 animals during the Cold War.
Dolphins helped protect a pier in the Vietnam War. The last time the marine mammals were deployed overseas was in 2003 in the Iraqi harbor of Umm Qasr, where they located underwater mines and cleared a path for Marines to land, officials say.
They also were used in San Diego in 1996, when they patrolled the bay during the Republican National Convention.
Swimmers planting bombs pose a real threat, said Cmdr. Jon Wood, who went to Iraq with the mammals. He said there were several cases of guerrillas laying charges on floating objects in Vietnam.
By the late 1990s, Navy officials began phasing out the program, expecting technology to take over. But that still has not happened, and dolphins and sea lions will be used until at least 2012.
Animal rights activists worry that the dolphins and sea lions sent to Washington state could be harmed by the cold water, and worry that the animals might transmit diseases to the area’s killer whales.
Dr. Stephanie Wong, a military veterinarian, said the dolphins are closely monitored for any signs of disease.
Navy Marine Mammal Program: http://www.spawar.navy.mil/sandiego/technology/mammals/