Nanaimo Daily News, Jack Knox
Pull your toes in the boat, Victoria. For the past couple of weeks local waters have been infested with U.S. Navy attack dolphins.
OK, they’re not actually attack dolphins since, as the navy points out on its website, they play only defensive roles.
But they are part of a straight-out-of-Hollywood unit of dolphins and sea lions that have been taught to find mines, recover high-tech gizmos, guard against terrorist frogmen and perform a variety of other Jack Bauer jobs. No, I’m not making this up.
And yes, they were deployed off Victoria before being loaded on a big grey U.S. military transport plane Monday and sent winging away, presumably to San Diego, where the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program is based.
No one advertised the dolphins’ presence here, but they made enough of a splash (as it were) that their visit was difficult to conceal. The U.S. Navy acknowledged Tuesday that the animals took part in the just-completed Operation Trident Fury, a joint U.S.-Canadian training exercise held off Victoria and Esquimalt harbours and up the coast.
The dolphins were here mainly to practise finding anti-ship mines – inert objects, in this case – “in the acoustically complex environment of a harbour,” said Jim Fallin, spokesman for San Diego’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Centre Pacific
Fallin did not know how many bottlenosed dolphins were involved, but four or five of the animals were seen being loaded on that transport plane in an elaborate procedure Monday. Fallin said the mammal program includes 110 animals – 35 sea lions and the rest dolphins, though the website (spawar.navy.mil/sandiego/technology/mammals/) also mentions a couple of beluga whales “that are currently on breeding loan.” (Operation Schwarzenegger?)
The U.S. began using marine mammals around 1960, soon discovering that their ability to use echolocation – sonar – made them uniquely suited to finding objects in the water. Unlike humans, they could also make repeated deep dives without getting the bends. And they were easy to train.
Their existence was long rumoured (the 1973 movie Day of the Dolphin featured a nefarious plot to use them as political assassins) but the program was kept secret until the early 1990s. In 2003, it was reported that nine dolphins working with Navy SEALS (human ones) helped find more than 100 anti-ship mines and underwater booby traps planted by Saddam Hussein’s forces in the port of Umm Qasr.
The mammals are teamed with humans to perform specific tasks. The website says dolphins trained to detect floating sea mines actually report back to their handlers “giving one response if a target object is detected and a different response if no target object is detected.” Others find mines buried on the ocean floor. Others work with human handlers to clear a safe corridor for troops to land ashore.
Here’s what Wikipedia says about their role as sentries: “When an enemy diver is detected by a dolphin, the dolphin approaches from behind and bumps a device into the back of the enemy’s air tank. This device is attached to a buoy which then floats to the surface, alerting the Navy personnel of the intruder. Sea lions carry a similar device in their mouth, but instead attach it by hand-cuffing one of the enemy’s limbs.” Gadzooks.
Over the years animal-rights activists have protested against the program, but the navy insists the mammals are treated properly.
More Nanaimo Daily News: http://www2.canada.com/nanaimodailynews/news/story.html?id=4800247