Dolphins help Navy steer clear in Gulf

Inflatable pools aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall hold nine bottlenose dolphins used to locate manmade objects on the sea floor. Until the 1970s, the existence of Navy dolphins was classified information, and it was not until 1992, at the end of the Cold War, that the public was first told about the program.


By KATE SILVERS | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 14, 2003

On April 4, 2003, a soldier went missing in the Persian Gulf.

While the rest of Tacoma’s unit remained fighting in the war against Iraq, Tacoma went AWOL for 48 hours. Rescue teams were assembled, because his absence threatened the search-and-locate mission he had been deployed on. Tacoma returned, and his mission continued — but the story is not as clear-cut as it seems, for Tacoma is an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.

Dolphins had been called upon to clear the waterways leading into Iraq, around the port of Umm Qasr. They had been trained by the U.S. Navy to use their natural sonar abilities to detect mines that had been planted in an attempt to destroy British and American warships. By attaching a weighted buoy line to the mine, divers could then safely neutralize the weapons.

The Navy will not comment on successes or failures, but it was well-documented in April that the British ship RFA Sir Galahad had been able to deliver vital shipments of humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people following clearance of the waterways around the port.

Mines had been left in the harbor after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They detonate by detecting shifts in the surrounding magnetic field caused by the steel hull of a ship. As dolphins have no metallic elements on their bodies, they pose no immediate threat for any detonation, and they have been taught not to touch the mines. The animals then transmit images to their trainer through a camera attached to their bodies.

The highly intelligent marine mammals are part of U.S. Naval Special Clearance Team One, which specializes in mine countermeasures. The animals even have a military name: Advanced Biological Weapon Systems.

Tom LaPuzza, public affairs spokesman for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, explained that the dolphins are taught with an effort-and-reward system.

“They are trained to locate, detect and attach recovery pendants in deep water,” said LaPuzza. “They are then rewarded with fish. These particular animals have an enhanced capability to find or locate objects.”

He explained that they operate from portable pods on the ship, and are kept in the best conditions possible — including traveling in fleece-lined slings and having their fins injected with zinc to stop them from incurring sunburn. They also only work for two hours every couple of days.

The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program began in 1960 with two goals. In the program based at the Space and Naval Warfare Center, in Port Loma, San Diego, the Navy first wanted to study the dolphins’ underwater sonar capabilities. The Navy intended to learn how to design more efficient methods of detecting objects underwater, and to improve the speed of its ships and submarines by researching the dolphins’ hydrodynamics. In addition, the Navy began to train dolphins to perform various tasks, including delivering equipment to divers underwater, locating and retrieving lost objects, guarding boats and submarines and doing underwater surveillance using a camera held in their mouths.

Dolphins have an extensive echolocation, which enables them to undertake such tasks. They produce a series of sounds, known as clicks, in the throat, larynx and nasal passages.

These sounds are received as echoes in the dolphin’s jawbone and the signal is transmitted to its brain. The animals then listen for how long the echo takes to bounce off an object to determine the distance away from the object. They also can establish the size, shape and internal structure of the object.

This ability results from a well-developed, acute sense of hearing. The auditory cortex of a dolphin’s brain is highly developed, and they are aided with an ability to hold their breath underwater — a dive can last for up to 10 minutes.

“For thousands of years, man has made use of the capabilities of animals; their strength, extraordinary senses, swimming or flying ability,” said LaPuzza, adding that the dolphin’s abilities are especially extraordinary.

The Navy is awarded millions of dollars each year for this research as naval mine warfare is deemed an integral part of U.S. defense.

A total of 35 handlers work with 70 dolphins. An active dolphin breeding program has been run and, this year alone, six babies have been born into the program. The young dolphins imitate their mothers, and so are easier to teach. Each dolphin will serve in the program for around 20 years, and each animal is worth $2 million.

Jim McCormick is a biomedical researcher at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Boston. He uses his expertise to work alongside the Navy in dolphin training and helped pioneer the military use of the mammals in the 1960s. He explained that it takes about a year for a dolphin to be trained.

“Dolphins are naturally suited to perform undersea jobs that would be far more time-consuming and dangerous for human divers,” he said. “Dolphins see with their ears. They can see under water with their sonar ability better than we can see in a lighted room. They are so intelligent and their brain is slightly larger than ours.”

Until the 1970s, the existence of Navy dolphins was classified information, and it was not until 1992, at the end of the Cold War, that the public was first given access to information about the program. Since the information became unclassified, there have been hurdles facing the program from animal rights organizations.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals believes that the welfare of the dolphins is of paramount importance.

“WSPA believes that all animals kept by, or under the control of, humans must be maintained in circumstances appropriate to their species,” said Michelle Bruce-Morales, a supporter liaison officer for the group. “In the case of the U.S. Navy dolphins, the inherent dangers of the duties they are called upon to perform, the suffering caused by the training, transport and keeping in captivity of this species is well-documented and a cause for concern.”

The Navy denies that any harm is done to the trained dolphins. McCormick explained that some of the dolphins he has trained had lived to 35 years of age — longer than the life expectancy in the wild.

“In 40 years of working with dolphins, I have never heard of a dolphin being killed on the job,” he said.

“They receive a choice diet — 20 pounds of fish per day — regular medical checks, their own sleeping quarters, and they work untethered in the open sea.”

Dawn Carr, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, argues that the animals’ “sleeping quarters” are 6-foot by 6-foot cages. Carr also says the dolphins were trained through force and food deprivation, and were fed dead fish that had lost vital nutrients that wild dolphins receive from live fish. The Navy denies the dolphins live in 6-by-6 cages, and said that the animals operate in a more natural sea water environment where they could interact with other marine life.

PETA believes that dolphins can stray or not be able to defend themselves in foreign waters.

“It is not ethical to put animals in harm’s way,” Carr said. “War is a human endeavor, and while people and political parties may decide war is necessary, animals cannot.

“They never enlisted, they know nothing of Iraq and Saddam Hussein and will probably not survive.”

The Navy insists that dolphins are effective in most environments.

“We agree with people that animals should be treated with respect and should be treated ethically and morally,” LaPuzza said. “We just don’t exactly agree on what this means. The animals, with seemingly very little danger to themselves, can go out and prevent a ship with a lot of soldiers from blowing up. That seems like a noble cause in our minds.”

PETA has appealed to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to stop the use of dolphins. The group argues that dolphins do not understand that lives are depending on their assignments.

The group’s concerns were highlighted with the disappearance of Tacoma, although embarrassed Navy officials believe he simply swam off to play with other dolphins for a while, and the fact was that he returned.

Some Navy specialists in the Persian Gulf are skeptical of the dolphins’ usefulness.

“They can be pretty effective, but they are like kids,” one diver said. “You put them in a strange environment and they don’t like it.”

The diver said that in a couple of weeks “when they get used to the water, I’m sure they will be great.”

But, for the time being, they were causing more work, as another diver said that they were reacting to every metal object in the Kwhar Abd Allah river, and the actual number of mines turning up was limited.

Of all the animal activist organizations, the Humane Society United States has used its objections successfully to try to curtail the military’s use of dolphins.

Naomi Rose is a marine mammal scientist for the Humane Society and was involved in an active campaign in the 1990s to reduce, and potentially eliminate, dolphin use. The Navy did reduce the use of dolphins, but said the downsizing was the result of financial cuts to the program due to the end of the Cold War, and that the Humane Society had no influence in the decision.

“We [the Humane Society] believe there are serious ethical and humane concerns regarding the use of dolphins for military purposes, especially in combat zones,” Rose said.

She stated that a dolphin is not a reliable soldier, and that too much dependence is put upon them.

“They’re moody; they have personalities,” Rose said. “They don’t understand the concept of loyalty to their country. They are not citizens of the United States, they are citizens of the ocean, so they are not reliable. When you are in a combat situation, the level of uncertainty of the dolphins is troublesome.”

And it is not just animal rights activists who oppose the program.

Richard O’Barry is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy. He had been recruited as a trainer around the time of the Cold War. He was also one of the trainers of the dolphins used on the television show “Flipper.”

He left the Navy in 1970 after serving five years and now believes that the use of dolphins for military purposes is immoral. He has since set up The Dolphin Project at the Sugarloaf Sanctuary, off the coast of Key West, Fla., where his team rehabilitates dolphins and reintroduces them into the wild.

“I had captured more than 100 dolphins, but one day realized that what I was doing was wrong,” O’Barry said. “These animals were treated as well as possible by our standards, but poorly indeed by others.”

He said the dolphins lived in substandard conditions and were controlled by food.

O’Barry said that while he had been a committed Navy man, he had not agreed with the dolphin program.

“I think the Navy Marine Mammal Program is cruel and unusual, and it should be abolished,” he said. “The Navy has a very utilitarian relationship with nature and, in my opinion, using dolphins is a faulty weapons system.”

The Navy declined to comment on O’Barry’s objections.

While the Americans were the first to explore the military possibilities of dolphins, the Soviet Union was keen to train its own.

A television documentary titled “Inside the Soviet Military Machine” was aired on The History Channel in April. The documentary detailed the Soviets’ use of fear and force tactics against the dolphins during training. For example, according to the documentary, the Soviets would drain the dolphins’ pen to induce fear and anxiety. The dolphins would then relent and allow a harness and muzzle to be attached. Food deprivation and isolation tanks were also used, according to the documentary.

The Soviets used the dolphins throughout the Cold War, but at the end of the war there was not enough funding for the program to continue.

The U.S. dolphins’ deployment to the Persian Gulf was the first combat mission they had been involved with, but it was not the first time they had been actively used by the Navy.

The first deployment was to Vietnam between 1965 and 1975. Five dolphins were sent to Cam Ranh Bay to perform underwater surveillance and guard military boats from North Vietnamese swimmers. North Vietnam would send divers to plant explosives on anchored American boats. The dolphins would patrol the area unnoticed, then alert armed trainer guards of the enemy’s position. The dolphins could also attach a clamp onto an intruding diver, which would act as a restraint device.

However, there have been accusations that the dolphins were actually trained to kill the swimmers.

This was known as a “swimmer nullification process,” where dolphins were trained to shoot at enemy divers with an appliance similar to a tagging device. Another alleged practice claims that the dolphins would have a mussel attached to their mouths with a syringe full of compressed air on the end of it. They would be trained to approach the enemy and insert the syringe into them. The outcome would be death.

Rose, the marine mammal scientist for the Humane Society, said that both former dolphin trainers and animal rights activists had accused the Navy of using dolphins in this way, but because the Navy had classified this information and issued a denial, the accusations were never proved.

The Navy issued a statement saying: “The Navy does not now train, nor has it ever trained, its marine mammals to harm or injure humans in any fashion. Since dolphins cannot discern the difference between enemy and friendly divers and swimmers, it would not be wise to give that kind of decision authority to an animal.”

After Vietnam, the dolphins were sent to Bahrain before the first Gulf War to patrol the harbor and defend American ships. The use of dolphins has continued, and there have been many deployments around the world. The ease of the dolphins to adapt to different locations has led to successes, especially in Vietnam. A couple of dolphins were left to patrol one area for a year. There were never any attacks on ships all the time that they were on guard, yet as soon as they left, attacks would start.

One area of support for the program comes from the British navy.

Commodore Brian May issued a statement from Iraq saying “The Lord God decided to give the dolphin the best sonar ability ever devised. We can only aspire to their ability.”

Public affairs spokesman Guy Boswell said that the British navy has considered the concept of using dolphins in military training for some time.

“Whilst we believe this to be an effective and reliable training system, the problem we face is that our waters are one of the only places in the world that the dolphins would find hard to adapt to. It’s just too darn cold here.”

Staff Sgt. Justin Roberts escorts K-Dog, a bottlenose dolphin, in a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat back to the well deck and holding areas aboard the USS Gunston Hall in the Arabian Gulf.