Marked for Duty

The Navy has trained Zak, a California sea lion,  to locate swimmers near piers, ships and in other sensitive locations where attackers might hide.
The Navy has trained Zak, a California sea lion, to locate swimmers near piers, ships and in other sensitive locations where attackers might hide. (Petty Officer First Class Brien Aho - AP)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. -- If they are allowed to police parts of Puget Sound, this is how Navy-trained dolphins and sea lions are expected to nab terrorists in wetsuits:

Using its sonar, a dolphin locates a swimmer approaching Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, where Trident submarines with long-range nuclear missiles are based. Swimming through the water in spurts of up to 30 mph, the dolphin seeks out and bumps the swimmer with a "nose cup." The device releases a strobe that rises to the surface. An armed Navy security team speeds toward the flashing light.

Alternatively, a sea lion collars swimmers around the piers of the naval base. Sea lions have excellent underwater hearing and, with their large eyes, can see underwater five times as well as people. Carrying a C-shaped leg cuff in its mouth, a sea lion dives, approaches the swimmer from behind and snaps the cuff around one ankle.

Swimmers participating in the training exercises often do not know where the cuff came from and almost never see the sea lion, the Navy says. After the cuffing, the sea lion darts away and a security officer uses a rope to haul in the swimmer.

"This is a mature technology and has been used on a bunch of occasions," said Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman in San Diego for the Navy's Marine Mammal Program, which announced last week that it wants to deploy dolphins and sea lions in Puget Sound.

To bring its technology north, however, the Navy must finesse its way around climatological, legal and political obstacles.

The water in Puget Sound is at least 10 degrees cooler than Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are used to in San Diego or in their native Gulf waters. So when the Navy tried to bring the dolphins north in 1989 and 1993, judges in Seattle agreed with animal rights groups that the dolphins might be harmed. One judge ordered the Navy not to move the dolphins until it studied the health consequences.

And public attitudes in the area toward the use of marine mammals for military purposes are downright icy.

"It is a cruel absurdity," said Jan Bailey, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who met with a dozen concerned friends and neighbors recently at a community center on Bainbridge Island.

Hoping to embarrass the Navy, Bailey and her group are deploying their own "silly absurdity." They are knitting sweaters and mittens for the dolphins and preparing to deploy the dolphin-loving masses in the Pacific Northwest to attend public hearings next month on the Navy's plan.

Concern generated by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has compelled the Navy to give the Puget Sound plan another try, LaPuzza said. He said Defense Department studies make it clear that the Navy must improve its water-based defenses for the Bangor base, home port for 12 submarines.

The Navy considered using combat swimmers and computer-controlled remote vehicles, LaPuzza said, but human swimmers can't match dolphins and sea lions. Comparable machines have not yet been configured, although the Navy is working on it.

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