Shrouded for most of its 40 years in military secrecy, nagged occasionally by controversy, criticized as impractical and inhumane, a little-known U.S. Navy program made a big splash last week with news that combat-trained dolphins were the latest recruits deployed to the war with Iraq.

For the Navy's Marine Mammal Program, news photos of dolphins working with their GI handlers at the port of Umm Qasr has landed one of the armed forces' best publicity coups since the Navy SEALs captured the public imagination. Is there any doubt Hollywood this very moment is penning a Flipper Goes to War script?

For the first time in real combat, dolphins are scouting enemy waters in search of mines.

"There are many people who are astounded and impressed," says Tom LaPuzza, Navy public affairs officer for the Marine Mammal Program, based at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego.

The dolphin mission turned up six enemy mines in its first 36 hours. Late last week, one unofficial report counted a total of 22.

"We've said for a long time that these animals can do this," says LaPuzza. "We now have proof of that."

The specially trained Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are the seafaring equivalent of bomb-sniffing dogs. Working with a human diver team and an unmanned underwater vehicle, they use biological echolocation sonar -- which sounds like clicking to humans -- to locate mines at great distances and in dark waters. They're far more effective at it than human divers.

"They have a substantially greater capability to view large areas and filter out rocks and bathtubs and junk to find only the thing you are looking for," says LaPuzza.

The dolphins are usually fitted with cameras to transmit underwater scenes to their handlers to further eliminate false alarms. When they find a mine, they report back to the boat and go to the "I've found something" rubber ball dangling from the front; the "nothing's out there" ball dangles from the back. Their handlers then decide whether to send the dolphin back to mark near the mine with a small float so human divers can blow up the mine.

In a new Navy program, sea lions, which are already adept at mine detection and object recovery, are being trained to detect enemy divers as well. Since January they have been demonstrating this capability in an exercise off the coast of Bahrain -- awaiting a call-up from coalition command.

With highly effective underwater "directional hearing" and the ability to see underwater in pitch-black darkness, the sea lions can spot divers intruding on piers or ships. Able to swim to depths of 650 feet and at 25 mph in short bursts, the sea lions race up behind divers, immobilize their legs with cuffing devices attached to a long rope, then race away, allowing their human counterparts to drag the enemies to the surface.

LaPuzza says the number of dolphins and sea lions deployed to Iraq is classified, but the Marine Mammal Program, budgeted at $10 million to $20 million annually, has 75 dolphins and 20 sea lions. It takes a year to train dolphins in basic procedure and responding to people, and another couple of years to train them in complex behaviors such as detecting mines or divers.

The program got its start in 1960 when the Navy studied the hydrodynamics of Pacific white-sided dolphins in hopes of streamlining its torpedo design. That didn't pan out, but the Navy was impressed with the dolphins' capacity to learn. (In intelligence, they are now judged to range between smart dogs and chimpanzees.) By 1963, the Navy was exploring ways that dolphins and sea lions might be used to perform underwater tasks.

A breakthrough occurred in 1965: A Navy dolphin named Tuffy, off the coast of La Jolla, Calif., carried tools and messages to Sealab II divers 200 feet below, demonstrating that it could work in open water without a leash.

Reports from Iraq last week that one of the Navy's dolphins, Tacoma, went temporarily AWOL in mid-mission didn't concern the Navy. The dolphins are equipped with electronic pingers that signal their location at all times. "Out of sight but never out of touch," says LaPuzza. "It happens occasionally when they are out in foreign territory. They get lost or they go off. But for the last 15 years, we haven't lost any animals."

The Navy's marine mammals have been to "hot zones" only twice before. In Vietnam in 1970, a five-dolphin team was sent to guard the Army munitions pier at Cam Ranh Bay that Viet Cong divers kept blowing up. The military leaked word that dolphins were protecting the pier, and the attacks stopped. After the dolphins left, the pier was blown up again.

The last hot-zone deployment was before the Gulf War, in 1987-88, when the USS LaSalle was anchored off Bahrain and looking like a sitting duck. The Navy sent six dolphins to protect it and escort Kuwaiti oil tankers safely to port. "Everybody stopped swimming in the harbor all the time they were there," says LaPuzza.

Otherwise, the program has spent most of its 40 years studying marine mammals, training them and practicing in exercises around the world. And it hasn't been just dolphins and sea lions.

While the Navy hasn't sent a killer whale to combat duty, the idea of an orca tormenting an underwater terrorist isn't that far-fetched. In the '70s, during the Cold War, one of the Navy's missions was to test and recover experimental anti-submarine torpedoes in the Arctic and North Atlantic where Soviet subs hung out. Those waters are too deep and cold for dolphins and sea lions. So in Project Deep Ops, the Navy trained a half-dozen whales -- including a killer whale -- to do the job. Once they located the torpedoes, the whales attached a gas generator that filled a balloon that raised the torpedo to the surface.

The whales were able to recover objects as deep as 1,654 feet, but were a logistical nightmare to transport to the site. "If you've got a sea lion, you can walk it on a leash. But if you've got a 5,000-pound killer whale, it doesn't work very well," says LaPuzza, adding that the project's two surviving whales are semi-retired at Sea World in San Diego.

In another experiment, the Navy taught gray seals, whose flippers are almost like human hands, to turn valves underwater. Recognizing the limited need for valve-turning seals, the Navy dropped the project. "You spend a lot of time and money developing capabilities," says LaPuzza, "but if you use it only once every 50 years, it probably isn't worth having."

But those experiments look like pool parties compared with the rumors that have dogged the program over the years. One intriguing allegation was that the Navy was training dolphins as undersea saboteurs to plant magnetic mines on enemy vessels.

"No, that's the George C. Scott movie 'The Day of the Dolphin,' " says LaPuzza, referring to the 1973 thriller in which kamikaze dolphins were used in a plot to blow up the president's yacht. A half-hour earlier, he adds, a French journalist demanded to know if the dolphins were "like floating logs full of explosives."

The tactic's flaw, says LaPuzza, is that dolphins can't discern between the bottom of an enemy ship and one of their own: "We don't think it is wise to give decision authority to an animal that might blow something up."

Another typical rumor: The program trains dolphins to kill using knives, poison-filled syringes or other weapons strapped to their beaks.

"Spare me!" says LaPuzza. "The U.S. Navy does not now, nor has it ever, trained dolphins or any other marine mammals to kill, harm or injure human beings."

Charges that the program abused its creatures in training came up empty when investigated by the presidentially appointed Marine Mammal Commission in 1988 and 1990. Not only was its dolphin survival rate found to be slightly higher than that of dolphins in the wild, but since 1989 the program hasn't "collected" adult dolphins -- preferring to rely on born-in-program animals.

None of that impresses animal rights advocates. "Wars are human endeavors," stated an action alert from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals complaining about the Pentagon's using marine mammals as well as chickens, pigeons and dogs to detect biochemical weapons in Iraq. "The U.S. military is deliberately putting animals in harm's way."

Olivia de Bergerac of the Dolphin Society, an Australia-based nonprofit research group that advocates rights for marine mammals, says the military missions conflict with the Declaration of Rights for the People of the Sea, the group's proposal to extend the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights to marine mammals. "The training and the risk involved in such use of dolphins is slavery and servitude," says de Bergerac.

William W. Rossiter, president of Cetacean Society International, a marine mammal protection group in Georgetown, Conn., says: "We believe that there is something evil, unethical and immoral about using children as human shields. They cannot understand the purpose or the danger, their resistance is weak, and it is not their conflict. We believe the same rules should apply to the use of innocent dolphins."

LaPuzza stresses that the Navy's program takes pains to keep its animals safe. Sea lions swim away so quickly after cuffing a diver that they virtually disappear, and dolphins are trained not to go close to the mines. "They aren't in any risk," he insists.

The program is so determined to minimize risk to the animals, says LaPuzza, that its long-term mission is to replicate the marine mammals' extraordinary biological sonar in unmanned underwater vehicles.

"The people who run this program are animals lovers of the finest kind," says LaPuzza. "We're just taking advantage of their capabilities."

Petty Officer Buddy Bickford with dolphin Makai.K-Dog, a 34-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, has a camera strapped to his flipper.Mission accomplished: Before the British ship Sir Galahad docked at the port of Umm Qasr, Navy dolphins scoured the waters for Iraqi mines. Between dives the dolphin K-Dog, above, rode in an inflatable boat back to its ship holding area. At left, U.S. Special Forces and a mine-sensing marine mammal working near Umm Qasr. "We've said for a long time that these animals can do this," said a Navy spokesman.