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Meet the Navy’s ‘seals’: Defenders against mines, enemy swimmers

By HENDRICK SIMOES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 14, 2014

ABOARD THE USS PONCE IN THE PERSIAN GULF — Beyond their cute faces and adorable demeanor, the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program California sea lions are highly trained military assets, skilled in detecting and defending against mines and enemy swimmers.

For the first time, the sea lions participated in the massive U.S. 5th Fleet-led International mine countermeasures exercise in the Middle East, involving 6,500 personnel and 38 warships from 44 navies. At least four sea lions participated in the two-week exercise that concluded Thursday.

Program officials say the sea lions are better suited for the tasks they are given than any piece of technology currently available.

“At some point technology will take over,” said Brian Weisman, an operations supervisor for the program, but “I don’t know when that’s going to happen.”

The San Diego-based sea lions operated from Naval Support Activity Bahrain and aboard the USS Ponce, where they worked with coalition divers from the U.S., France, Denmark and Germany to practice scenarios in which an intruder tried to sneak into restricted waters.

The Navy marine mammal program has a combination of more than 100 California Sea Lions & Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Officials said it takes about two years to train a sea lion and some of them work for the Navy 20 years.

“Our program actually serves almost like a sanctuary for some of these animals who have been abandoned,” Weisman said. Officials said many of the animals trained by the Navy were deemed non-releasable due to injury or other circumstances.

Currently, sea lions help provide around-the-clock protection for two U.S. nuclear submarine facilities in the U.S. However, officials said more are available at their program’s home in San Diego, ready to be deployed within 72 hours by ship, aircraft, helicopter or vehicle to anywhere in the world.

simoes.hendrick@stripes.com
Twitter: @hendricksimoes

 

A California sea lion with the Navy Marine Mammal Program appears shy as a handler escorts the animal to meet reporters onboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf, Nov. 3, 2014.
HENDRICK SIMOES/STARS AND STRIPES

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