More In This Article
The newest batch of sentries at Naval Base Kitsap–Bangor will not have to wear uniforms. But they won't get to clock out for breaks—and they will be paid in fish.
The base near Washington's Puget Sound is slated to receive up to 20 Navy-trained bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to patrol the shoreline around the submarine base as part of a bolstered security initiative started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The plan, proposed more than three years ago, was approved last month after a lengthy environmental impact assessment. The animals will be on the lookout 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for swimmers or divers in the base's restricted waters, said Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the Navy Marine Mammal Program.
The deployment, planned for sometime in 2010, will mark only the latest maneuver for the marine mammal unit, founded almost 40 years ago.
During the Vietnam War, dolphins and sea lions were tapped by the Navy for assistance in duties ranging from mine detection and object retrieval to finding and marking enemy swimmers as part of an official U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. Since then, the animals in the marine fleet have been sent to other U.S. Navy bases and were deployed to help clear mines from the waters by Umm Qasr during the early stages of the war in Iraq.
None of the animals has ever been injured or killed in the line of duty, according to the Navy.
"We enlisted marine mammals because modern technology has not yet caught up with their innate sensory abilities," LaPuzza said. Dolphins have superior biological sonar that allows them to find mines and swimmers for the Navy, and sea lions have excellent low-light vision and underwater directional hearing capabilities useful for deepwater object retrieval missions and swimmer detection, he said. Also, unlike human divers, both animals can take repeated deep-sea dives without experiencing adverse health effects.
Enlisting the marine contingent
The animals are not taught to take out an intruder themselves or attack the person in any way.
They are each trained at the program's center in San Diego to alert their human handlers to a swimmer's presence, mark his or her location, and then swim away while humans apprehend the intruder, LaPuzza said.
The program was scaled down with the end of the Cold War because the Navy thought it would have reduced security needs, according to Navy officials. The Navy also thought that technology like mechanical sonar would soon be available that would match the animals' innate abilities, said LaPuzza.
"In the late 1990s, we saw machines wouldn't be ready and started up the program again," LaPuzza said.
Even during the scale down, the fleet size dropped down to 83 because of the animals' long life spans—typically the late 20s for the sea lions and upward of 30 years for the dolphins. Now there are more than 100 animals in the service.