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Uncle Sam's Dolphins

In the Iraq war, highly trained cetaceans helped U.S. forces clear mines in Umm Qasr's harbor

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Still, the practice of using dolphins as mine sweepers has its critics. The Connecticut-based Cetacean Society International condemns the use of marine mammals in a combat zone. "Even wars have rules," society president William Rossiter said in a statement this spring. "It is evil, unethical and immoral to use innocents in war, because they cannot understand the purpose or the danger, their resistance is weak, and it is not their conflict."

"We treat the animals with the utmost respect," says LaPuzza. "We don’t send them out to do anything that’s dangerous for them." The Marine Mammal Commission, an independent federal agency, reported in 1989 that "Navy protocols for maintaining uniform standards of medical care and husbandry are excellent."

The Navy first began working with dolphins in 1960, when researchers at the Naval Ordnance Test Station facility at Pt. Mugu, California, sought to improve torpedo design by studying the animals’ hydrodynamic efficiency. While the Navy learned little it could apply to torpedoes, Navy researchers did take note of the dolphins’ intelligence, trainability and natural sonar. The researchers began to train dolphins to perform simple tasks underwater. In 1965, a Navy-trained Atlantic bottle-nose named Tuffy dove 200 feet to carry tools and messages to crew members in SEALAB II off California’s coast. In 1970, the presence of five Navy dolphins discouraged underwater saboteurs from entering the water and blowing up a U.S. Army pier in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay; in 1987 and 1988, five dolphins patrolled the waters around the USS La Salle off the coast of Bahrain.

Today, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center San Diego spends up to $14 million a year to operate, including training its 75 dolphins and 25 sea lions. The Navy says it hasn’t captured wild dolphins since 1999, when it began a captive dolphin breeding program.

None of the sea mammals should expect a speedy discharge. "It’s doubtful anything man-made will ever match the dolphins’ capabilities," says LaPuzza.

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