Dolphins, sea lions sent to support Iraq war

Two Atlantic bottlenose-dolphins — likely trained in Hawai`i — were deployed to the Middle East to help coalition forces. The dolphins, named Makai and Tacoma, were sent to the port city of Umm Qasr where they will help locate underwater mines. While there were reports over the weekend that Takoma had gone AWOL, Navy officials reported late Sunday that he’d returned about 48 hours later.

In addition to dolphins, the Navy is also using California sea lions trained to recover unarmed practice mines and to locate underwater swimmers, and then attach a restraint device. They will participate in a demonstration of their abilities in Bahrain in the upcoming weeks, according to a Navy release.

The dolphins use their highly developed sonar to locate and then mark the underwater mines so that human divers can deactivate them. This work has angered some animal rights groups, however.

The animal rights group PETA recently released a statement opposing the military’s use of dolphins and other animals in the war against Iraq. Wars are human endeavors, PETA argues, and animals should be left out of it.

The dolphins are part of the Navy Special Clearance Team ONE, according to a recent Navy press release, which will conduct mine countermeasures, or MCM. The team consists of a dive platoon, a dolphin platoon and an unmanned, underwater vehicle platoon.

“A whole bunch of our dolphins have Hawaiian names,” said Tom Lapuzza, public affairs officer for the Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, in an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser. “A number of them were collected in the Gulf of Mexico and almost all were flown to Hawai`i, where the basic training and systems were developed.”

Capt. Mike Tillotson, a Navy bomb disposal expert, told the Advertiser that dolphins are taught to avoid touching the mines, and that there is little risk to animals doing this kind of work. The biggest hazard could come from other indigenous dolphins in the waters of Umm Qasr — dolphins are territorial and there is a fear local dolphins might drive the newcomers out.

According to the Navy, the future of mine detection will depend more and more on unmanned systems. When the technology is fully mature, such systems will be used to reduce the risk to both man and dolphin in MCM operations and will allow divers to focus on high priority targets.

According to the Navy, the military began using marine mammals in the early 1960s. Military researchers were investigating how their highly developed senses like the dolphins sonar could be used to locate mines and do other tasks.

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