Sides divided on dolphins as guards
Published: March 29th, 2007 01:00 AM
KEYPORT, Kitsap County – Neither supporters nor opponents of a Navy plan to enlist dolphins and sea lions for security work at a major submarine base appeared swayed by arguments at an open house Tuesday in Keyport.
Critics said Hood Canal, home of the West Coast Trident submarine base, would be too cold for the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins the Navy plans to use. Others questioned the use of live animals rather than sophisticated technology.
Protesters brought inflated dolphins and sea lions clad in camouflaged shirts, while some knitted clothes for the animals. A similar hearing was planned Wednesday night in Seattle.
The Navy has proposed using as many as 30 dolphins and California sea lions to protect the sub base at Bangor, which is believed to contain a large nuclear weapons stockpile, from suspicious swimmers and scuba divers.
Nine other options were given less favorable ratings in the Navy’s environmental impact statement.
Navy officials note that dolphins and sea lions have guarded a similar sub base in Kings Bay, Ga., for two years.
Working at night, the animals are trained to alert a handler in a small boat when they detect a swimmer. The handler then places a strobe light on the nose of the animal, which speeds back and bumps the swimmer, causing the light to fall into the water, where it floats to mark the spot for human security personnel to intercept the intruder.
Navy officials said the dolphins would work for a couple hours before being returned to an enclosure with water conditions similar to those of San Diego.
“That’d be like you and me going into a blizzard for two hours and then put back into a San Diego environment,” said Susan Scheirman of Bainbridge Island.
Dorian Houser, a marine mammal physiologist for the Navy, countered that studies show bottlenose dolphins deal well with temperatures down to about 40 degrees, which Hood Canal rarely reaches.
Leigh Calvez of Bainbridge Island disputed Navy claims that the dolphin and sea lion proposal was the best technology available.
“We don’t have anything as good as dolphins to protect us? That’s hard to believe,” she said.
Navy officials said other options included combat swimmers and remotely operated vehicles, which have yet to be developed.
“If only we had the technology to do that,” said Tom LaPuzza of the Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, “and someday we will.”