STUTTGART, Germany — They are in the sea what their bomb-sniffing K-9 counterparts are on land.
Dolphins are perhaps the Navy’s best weapon when it comes to hunting for mines and other threats along cluttered shorelines, where the mammal’s fine-tuned natural sonar system can be trained to discriminate between the hazardous and the harmless.
“Nothing matches the dolphin’s capability,” said Chris Harris, a bio technician with the Navy’s marine Mammal Team out of San Diego.
That genius for mine detecting and uncovering other weapons has been demonstrated this month in connection with Dolphin 2012, a joint State Department and U.S. European Command exercise in Montenegro, where a cadre of bottlenecks has been hard at work.
The dolphins, along with their handlers from the Navy’s Marine Mammal program, have spent nearly three weeks in Boka Bay, working to detect explosive remnants of war on the sea floor.
The exercise, which ends Wednesday, is part of a multi-year U.S. program to help Montenegro detect potentially dangerous underwater objects and to strengthen Montenegro’s ability to rehabilitate areas where ordnance is still present, according to the U.S. Embassy in Montenegro. Some of those objects could date to both World Wars I and II.
In addition to dolphins, the exercise involved the U.S. Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit-1.
During the training, dolphins used their biological sonar to mark locations for suspected explosive remnants of war, guiding Navy divers to the locations. After marking the spots, the dolphin team leaves the area, making way for the Navy experts and their Montenegrin navy dive partners.
“Then, American Navy divers are training Montenegrin divers to go down and really see what it is,” said Shelly Seaver, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Montenegro.
It will be up to the Montenegrins to decide what to do with the war relics, such as whether an excavation is required.
“We will give the grids to the Montenegrins and they will investigate it,” Seaver said.
Around since 1959, the Navy’s Marine Mammal unit keeps a busy training schedule, working with militaries from other nations and also staying prepared for real world missions, Harris said.
For example, the bottlenecks were deployed in 2003 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, helping clear ports in the Arabian Gulf, Harris said.
Harris, a Navy civilian who worked in oceanariums before joining the Navy’s mammal unit 12 years ago, said what sets the Navy mission apart is the chance to work with dolphins in the open ocean.
“That was my interest and what drew me,” Harris said. “They work untethered.”
The dolphins training in Montenegro will soon be boarding an Air Force C-17 aircraft for the long trip back to San Diego.
Transported in tanks partially filled with water and a soft hammock to rest on, the dolphins have their handlers by their side for the whole flight.
“They’re reassuring them, petting them and talking to them,” Harris said. “Dolphins really do travel first class.”