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US Navy dolphins help clean up seabed off of Croatia resort town

Amanda Townsel, dolphin handler with the Navy's Marine Mammal Program out of San Diego, coaxed a dolphin from the water in Zaton Bay in southern Croatia on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. The Navy team was preparing to scout for unexploded ordnance on the seabed off the coast of the historic town of Dubrovnik.

ZATON, Croatia — A team of U.S. Navy bottlenose dolphins and divers is combing the pristine waters around Dubrovnik in a unique mine-detection operation — a collaboration with the Croatian navy to clean up any unexploded ordnance that may have ended up at the bottom of the sea following two world wars and the siege of the city 20 years ago.

The six highly-trained bomb-sniffing dolphins, and their 20-strong team of handlers, veterinarians, Navy divers and other support personnel were flown to Dubrovnik by C-17 last week from their base in San Diego, where they form part of the Navy’s prestigious Marine Mammal Program. They are housed in first-class Adriatic accommodations — large swimming enclosures specially constructed in the beautiful seaside village of Zaton, just north of Dubrovnik, Croatia’s premier tourist destination.

While preparing for their mission, dubbed Dolphin 2013, the animals have become a tourist attraction of their own. Dozens of locals and foreign tourists have been crowding the palm-lined pier to catch a glimpse of the dolphins in their secured compound, which is guarded by Croatian military police.

The Navy team has been joined by Croatian divers and naval observers from Slovenia and Montenegro, both of which, along with Croatia, were part of Yugoslavia until the wars of independence that started in 1991. The three now independent countries share a roughly 600-mile coastline. Any duds that might be found on the seabed are likely to be artillery or naval shells fired during the breakup of the Yugoslav federation. Dubrovnik was cut off and under siege for four months, with ships of the Yugoslav navy — at that time comprised only of Serbia and Montenegro — bombarding the historic, walled city from the Adriatic.

Last year, the dolphins and their handlers spent nearly three weeks in Boka Kotorska Bay in Montenegro, about 30 miles south of Dubrovnik, working to detect explosive remnants of war off the coast there.

The Navy has been training and using dolphins since 1959 to help locate underwater objects, because no technology can yet match the exceptional effectiveness of their biological sonar capabilities, their hearing or their ability to see underwater in near-zero visibility, Navy officials said. They are also capable of making repeated deep dives with no adverse effect, like the “bends,” or decompression sickness, that present a danger to human divers.

“Dolphins are very good at finding very small things in very cluttered shallow bottoms,” team spokesman Christian Harris said. “Machinery can’t do that.”

The animals weigh about 330 pounds each and consume about 25 pounds of fish a day. Although Croatia’s coast is well-known for the quality of its fresh seafood, the Navy team flies all of its dolphin food from San Diego so that the variety of fish they are used to can be maintained throughout the three-week mission, Harris said.

The dolphins also receive round-the-clock medical and dental care, said Betsy Lutmerding, a clinical veterinarian who is part of the team along with two veterinary technicians. The medical equipment includes a laboratory in which the animals’ blood chemistry is constantly monitored, and other diagnostic tools, she said.

All the animals used in the program were born at the Navy facility, and receive two to three years of specialty training before taking part in any underwater missions, Harris said. Due to the constant medical attention they receive their average life-span is 40-plus years, nearly double that of dolphins in the wild, he said.

The dolphin team is supported by members of the U.S. Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit. The State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement operation is contributing financial support.

Duringthe three-week mission, which ends Oct. 18, the animals will scour locations of interest in Dubrovnik port and the mile-long inlet between Dubrovnik’s massive city walls, the beach island of Lokrum and the luxury hotels lining the shore. For greater distances, they are transported in special boats on soft rubber stretchers that allow them to slide in and out of the water.

Once in the sea, they will locate and mark potentially dangerous objects, some of which could date to World Wars I and II. Navy divers — along with their colleagues from Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia — will then photograph, identify and dispose of any objects found.

“This exercise is very important for the Croatian navy,” said Lt. Ivan Musulin, who heads the host nation’s naval component. “When you’re dealing with mines, you have to be very, very careful, and constant practice is essential.”

The long-term goal of the mission is to enable Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia to establish an effective and sustainable underwater demining capability, organizers said. The team will leave behind about $450,000 worth of specialized equipment, including side-scan sonar and magnetometers.

Slovenia and Croatia are both members of the NATO alliance, and Montenegro is next in line to join.

Since 1959, the U.S. Marine Mammal Program unit has maintained an intense schedule, working with navies from other nations and also staying prepared for real world missions. They have been deployed around the globe, including Alaska, Australia, Bahrain, Guam Hawaii, Iraq, Lithuania, New Caledonia, Norway, South Korea and Vietnam.

During the long flights, the dolphins rest in tanks partially filled with water and with a soft hammock to rest on. Because they thrive on social contact, they always have their handlers by their sides, petting and talking to them.

“The care and condition of the dolphins is the most important part of the program,” Harris said. “So they always receive first-class treatment.”

lekic.slobodan@stripes.com

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