Animals provide Navy with a better view under the water, aiding security efforts

A Navy sea lion trained to locate underwater objects dives off a rubber boat during an exercise in late October off the coast of northern Italy. The exercise showcased a sea lion’s skills in helping the Navy provide security as well as the latest technology, including the use of unmanned vehicles for locating mines.


By LISA M. NOVAK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 4, 2009

Sea lions and other ocean-going animals are proving to the Navy that they’re worth their salt.

The Navy has enlisted the natural talents of sea lions, seals and dolphins to help in the recovery of underwater objects and provide security in the water, much as military working dogs do on land.

Outfitted with a special harness, sea lions carry cameras that help researchers get a better view of the ocean floor or perhaps catch divers attempting to gain unauthorized access to ports or vessels. The animals also can carry tools such as tow lines to attach to underwater objects.

Four sea lions and their handlers from Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego took part in a series of demonstrations in late October off the island of Elba in northern Italy held by the NATO Undersea Research Center.

The demonstrations showed off the animals’ skills along with some of the latest technologies, including the use of unmanned vehicles for locating mines and high-resolution cameras for providing views of the ocean floor that would otherwise be very hard to see.

“Oftentimes you’re in an area with seaweed- or kelp-covered items or rocks,” said Jeff Haun, head of the systems technology department at the research center. “Being able to take a picture of the target and see how and where it’s lying, [researchers] can use those pictures to compare with sonar images. It helps verify any targets.”

Sea lions are especially suited to this work because of their strength and agility, said Steve Hugueley of the naval warfare systems command. He was in Italy for the exercise.

“It’s easy for them to jump into the boat from the water, and they’re very quick,” he said. “They can dive to around 1,000 feet and carry tools in their mouth with a bite plate — it’s a rubber-coated piece of plastic that allows them to hold the tools.

“It takes about a year and a half to train them, and they can work for about 20 years.”

In addition, the animals can see well in low-light conditions, hear sounds from several directions and can work on land as well as in the water.

There are about 30 sea lions in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, Hugueley said.

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