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Marine Mammals on Active Duty

Military briefings from the Pentagon and Central Command in Qatar have detailed the use of high-tech precision weapons in the war in Iraq. But in southern Iraq, in the waterway leading to the port of Umm Qasr and in the harbor of Bahrain, the more ancient and precise work of marine mammals is under way. Dolphins are using their natural sonar to detect mines in the water near Umm Qasr. And in Bahrain, sea lions are guarding boats and piers from potentially threatening swimmers.

NPR's Scott Simon spoke with Tom LaPuzza of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, Calif., the home base for the Navy's marine mammal program.

Dolphins, LaPuzza says, are "incredibly effective animals at doing what they do, which is using an amazing sonar system to find things underwater."

Using a natural sonar system that humans still don't fully understand, dolphins send out a series of sound pulses from their throat, larynx and nasal passages, LaPuzza explains. The sounds are received as echoes in the dolphin's jawbone, and the signal is transmitted up to its brain.

"Some unbelievable process takes place ... that somehow gives the animal a very, very detailed picture of what it sees out there," LaPuzza says.

The dolphins have been trained to recognize acoustically the design of different types of underwater mines. Once a dolphin has located a mine, the animal swims back up to the surface, where it signals its human trainer that it has found something. The trainer then hands the animal a marker that the dolphin places near the mine. A human diver will later swim down to the indicated spot to deal with disarming the mine.

Although this is the first combat deployment for mine-hunting dolphins, LaPuzza points out that dolphins trained to detect unauthorized swimmers were previously deployed in Vietnam during the 1970s and in Bahrain in the late 1980s.

In the current conflict with Iraq, the same swimmer-detection role is being filled by sea lions that the U.S. Navy has deployed to Bahrain. The sonar abilities of sea lions aren't as sharp as those of dolphins, LaPuzza says, but the animals do have keen underwater directional hearing and an ability to see in almost total darkness. If a patrolling sea lion does spot a suspicious diver, it is trained to clamp a line on the diver to prevent him from swimming away. A sea lion's ability to walk on land at speeds faster than humans also comes in handy when on patrol, LaPuzza says.

"A dolphin will give up when the guy comes ashore because there's nothing he can do about it," LaPuzza says. "A sea lion could chase him onto the beach and attach the clamp if it wanted to."

LaPuzza acknowledges that some animal rights' activists might object to the use of marine mammals in warfare.

"We agree with people that animals should be treated with respect and should be treated ethically and morally," LaPuzza says. "We just don't exactly agree on what that means.

"The animals, with seemingly very little danger to themselves, can go out and prevent a ship with a lot of U.S. soldiers from blowing up. That seems like a noble cause in our minds."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.