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In 1967, the Point Mugu facility and its personnel were placed under a newly formed organization which was to become the Naval Undersea Center (NUC), with headquarters in San Diego, California. Following the formation of the centre, two more laboratories were established in Hawaii and Florida and, in a subsequent reorganization, the NUC became the Naval Ocean Systems Center (NOSC).

Interviews with many current and former trainers and scientists connected with the Navy's dolphin work have revealed that in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, the Navy stopped simply studying the dolphin's swimming and acoustic abilities and turned their attention to the development of the dolphin as a weapon - an animal programmed to detect, attack and help capture enemy divers.

At the time, the Pentagon was examining every possible weapons system. 'They began talking to us about possible deployment in Vietnam,' Irvine says. 'They had a problem. Higher-ups were getting worried about saboteurs floating down the river with mines into Cam Ranh Bay. They were saying we were really vulnerable there. They got us thinking about this seriously.'

Irvine had not opposed the idea of training dolphins to conduct surveillance protrols, but he was disturbed by hints that the Navy wanted dolphins to carry out attack missions.

Rumours have persisted ever since about dolphins being trained to kill underwater divers, attach limpet mines to ships and fix high technology listening devices to enemy submarines. The popular novel by Robert Merle, subsequently made into the film 'The Day of the Dolphin', starring George C. Scott, helped fuel these notions in the early 1970s.

James Fitzgerald, currently President of Kildare Corporation (2001), a US manufacturer of sonar equipment, was one of the few people willing to shed light on these activities. He claimed to have run feasibility studies from 1964 onwards, into using dolphins as 'naval weapons systems'.

In Key West and nearby Grassy Key, he develpoed an 'antiswimmer system for ship protection' and a mine-hunting system. In October 1965, he conducted two weeks of field tests in the Bahamas, demonstrating that a trained dolphin could be deployed at a remote base. By 1967, he had trained five dolphins for particular tasks and two of these were deemed 'substantially ready for operational deployment in Vietnam'.

Fitzgerald promoted the idea of using the animals to the Navy's top officials, claiming that the dolphin was a natural 'marine operational system' that was just begging to be exploited. 'It's a self-propelled vehicle with an on-board computer with operational capacity,' says Fitzgerald. 'All you have to do is program it.'

In tests, he claimed, the dolphins 'were 100 per cent effective. We trained them to either pull the mouthpiece of the regulator from the diver's mouth or push him to the surface. Then the dolphin would hit a response paddle hanging from a buoy that would trigger an alert signal. Between a man and a dolphin, there was no contest.'

In 1968, the US Navy expanded Fitzgerald's dolphin programme but then made the entire operation an internal project and cancelled his contract.

Fitzgerald said the Navy began using the system is 1971 when it sent a team of dolphins to Cam Ranh Bay for 15 months. The animals were also trained to work with underwater demolition teams (UDTs) in mine-sweeping operations, locating mines and other obstacles and either attaching acoustic beacons to them or informing divers of their location by striking a series of submerged paddles with their snout. 'The frogmen,' says Fitzgerald, 'could then either blow the mines up or defuse them.'

Other reports suggest that the dolphins were also used to plant mines. Ken Woodal, a former member of the Navy's elite 'special welfare group' or commandos, known as SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) unit, was quoted in a May 1985 news article as saying that he worked with three dolphins in Vietnam and that they were 'quite effective in attaching light mines to enemy wharves and piers'. They were trained to detach from a mine after planting it and then swim to safety.

A long-term employee of the programme, who requests anonymity, confirms that the animals were actually given offensive tasks. The dolphins, he says, were used at night to intercept saboteurs who floated down the river and into the harbour where the US fleet was anchored. 'If someone was in the water at night,' the former employee says, 'you could be sure he wasn't friendly.' He says the dolphins clamped markers on the swimmers and alerted guards to their presence but claims rumours that they were used to kill frogmen are 'nonsense'.

Such a story became widespread in 1977 when Michael Greenwood, a former Navy psychophysiologist, reportedly told a secret US Senate committee hearing that dolphins had been trained to attack swimmers with a device equipped with a long hypodermic needle connected to a carbon dioxide cartridge. When jabbed, the enemy would literally blow up.

The Navy denied Greenwood's charges and no hard evidence has ever surfaced to support his claim. 'That CO2 business all got started with a device that was invented to repel sharks,' explains the anonymous employee. 'It would certainly he a hell of an inefficient way to kill a lot of people. Why not just capture somebody unharmed and interrogate him?'

The next officially acknowledged combat duty for the Navy's marine mammals was on 14 October 1987. A team of six Pacific bottlenose dolphins, along with a 25-man support staff, was airlifted to the Persian Guld from the NOSC base in San Diego at the request of the US Commander of the Middle East Forces, Rear Admiral Harold J. Bernsen.

The Admiral was responsble for a fleet of US warships escorting tankers running the gauntlet through mine-strewn waters. Several bases onshore were used to support the fleet, including a barge stationed near Iran's Farsi Island from which mine-sweeping and other special operations were co- ordinated. It housed more than 200 American troops, including helicopter cres, SEAL commandos and UDTs.

During their seven and a half month tour of duty, the dolphins, according to a Pentagon statment, provided 'underwater surveillance and detection capability'. All further details about the project remain classified but it is known that it was not a great success.

None of the dolphins had had much training and the most experienced, a seven-year-old male, died shortly after arriving in the Gulf, from bronchial pneumonia precipitated by a bacteria infection.