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Marked for Duty
Navy Pursues Dolphin, Sea Lion Patrols in Puget Sound

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.

The Navy has been training dolphins since the Vietnam War. Dolphins patrolled San Diego harbor in 1996 during the Republican National Convention. Sea lions and dolphins were sent in 2003 to stop swimmers off Bahrain. The Navy has about 100 dolphins and sea lions, most of them in San Diego. About 20 protect Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia.

To comply with the federal judge's order to study the effect of cold water on bottlenose dolphins, the Navy has in recent years transported them to waters off Maine, Alaska and Scandinavia.

"The animals did fine," LaPuzza said, but he noted that they spent most of their time in heated enclosures. In Puget Sound, the animals would have heated pens and would be exposed to cold water in short shifts.

But skeptics such as Naomi A. Rose, a marine mammal scientist for the Humane Society of the United States, said that dolphins, a highly social and intelligent species, should not be held captive for any reason. She particularly objects, on ethical grounds, to their being used for military purposes.

"They are not reliable soldiers," she said. "They think they are just having fun."

Rose said the Navy's marine mammal center in San Diego provides the best veterinarian care in the United States. But keeping dolphins in captivity in a noisy harbor and transporting them around the world causes too much stress, she said. Citing a U.S. government database, she said captive dolphins live about as long as their wild cousins, but no longer. Given that Navy dolphins have medical care, abundant food and protection from predators, Rose said it is worrisome that they do not live longer. She blames stress. The lifespan of a dolphin in the wild is about 30 years.

The Navy says that Rose is wrong and that its dolphins do live considerably longer than creatures in the wild. Everyone agrees that sea lions live longer in the Navy program, mostly because they are protected from sharks and killer whales.

In the four decades that the Navy has been training dolphins -- and taking them on periodic "open ocean walks" where they are free to escape -- nine dolphins have done just that. Rose suggests that the dolphins went AWOL because they preferred life in the wild. The Navy disagrees.

"The way we look at it is they got lost and they are trying to find us as hard as we are trying to find them," LaPuzza said. The disappearances stopped 10 years ago when the Navy outfitted its dolphins with electronic tracking devices called pectoral fin pingers.

A decision on whether Navy dolphins and sea lions will come to Puget Sound is expected to take at least a year. While they wait, dolphin admirers on Bainbridge Island will knit.

"We are looking for neoprene yarn," Bailey said.

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