The U.S. Navy made military history Wednesday when it sent trained dolphins swimming into the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr to help minesweepers clear the Persian Gulf of explosives and open the way for allied cargo ships and humanitarian aid.
Two bottlenose dolphins deployed from the transport ship Ponce are among an unspecified number of the marine mammals sent from San Diego by the Navy to the region this week to safeguard allied vessels from mines and other dangers, the Navy said.
They may soon be joined by California sea lions trained to locate and snare enemy divers who are then reeled in by U.S. forces. A "platoon" of sea lions has been in Bahrain for two months and could see action soon, a Navy spokesman said.
Since 1965, the Navy has trained dolphins to protect U.S. troops and ships and has used them in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf before. But this is the first time the animals are being used to locate live ordnance in wartime, the Navy said.
That has two of the nation's biggest animal rights groups worried. The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stressed they were not placing the lives of animals above those of troops. But they questioned the ethics and wisdom of using wild animals to ensure safe passage through hostile waters.
"We're not going to second-guess the Navy at a time of war," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society of the United States. "But we don't support the use of marine mammals for military use."
The highly trained dolphins are part of Navy Special Clearance Team One, an elite team of Navy SEALs and Marines formed eight months ago, said Navy spokesman Tom LaPuzza.
LaPuzza refused to say how many of the 75 dolphins trained at the Marine Mammal Program in San Diego had been sent to the region, but he confirmed that they were being used in Umm Qasr.
MINES FOUND IN PORT: Navy Rear Admiral Barry Costello, who is overseeing the minesweeping operation, told a Chicago Tribune reporter aboard the Ponce that floating and bottom-hugging mines had been found in Umm Qasr in recent days. Both types of mines crippled the amphibious assault ship Tripoli and the missile cruiser Princeton in 1991.
Because the waters of Umm Qasr are murky and the sea floor muddy, dolphins which possess sonar so keen they can discern a quarter from a dime when blindfolded and spot a 3-inch metal sphere from 370 feet away are invaluable minesweepers.
The dolphins, kept in tanks aboard Navy ships, are dispatched from small boats. Upon spotting a mine, they surface and tap a rubber disk alongside the boat. Then they drop a weighted tether near the mine so divers can locate it.
At no time do they touch the mine, and the animals are removed from the water before divers approach it, LaPuzza said.
"The animal's only job is to find a mine and mark it," he said. "The humans are taking the risk."
The dolphins were flown to the Persian Gulf in fleece slings suspended in 90-cubic-foot tanks. They are accompanied at all times during their flight and deployment overseas by their handlers and veterinarians, LaPuzza said.
"The humans come out of the flights worse off than the dolphins," he said.
Animal rights activists argue the stress of a 14-hour flight increases the dolphins' risk of illness and premature death.
The dolphins may grow accustomed to flying and may even show no immediate ill effects, but being suspended in a sling is akin to being beached, said Rose of the Humane Society.
And while dolphins are found throughout the world, some worry that placing animals accustomed to the Southern California climate in the Persian Gulf could further jeopardize their health.
There also are concerns the dolphins, highly intelligent and naturally inquisitive creatures, might venture off and get lost.
Some critics also say the dolphins may not be up to the task of finding live ordnance despite their three years of training.
"At the moment of truth, should these animals get distracted, it could cost human lives," said Stephanie Boyles, a biologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "We don't think it's prudent of our government to place the lives of our troops in the flippers of these dolphins."
PERFECT IN TRAINING: The Navy insists that, in training situations at least, the dolphins have a stellar record.
"We think they have 100 percent accuracy," LaPuzza said.
The Navy began experimenting with dolphins in 1960 when it began studying the hydrodynamics of the white-sided dolphin. It expanded its inquiries to study the dolphin's sonar in 1963 and began training the animals to work alongside divers in 1965.
Dolphins protected troops and ships from saboteurs in Vietnam in 1970 and '71. They also safeguarded U.S. ships escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the Persian Gulf in 1987 and '88.
It was not immediately clear how many dolphins the Navy has used in the 37 years it has been working with the animals. At least a dozen have died in accidents and from illness since 1965, according to news accounts based on interviews with former Navy dolphin trainers.
By Chuck Squatriglia