Navy to deploy dolphins, sea lions to protect sub base
Submitted by SHNS on Fri, 11/20/2009 - 15:46
By ED FRIEDRICH, Scripps Howard News Service
BANGOR, Wash. - Specially trained Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions will help guard a Trident submarine base in Washington beginning next year, the Navy announced this week.
Their job will be to stop swimmers or divers from infiltrating Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. Marine mammals are already being used to find possible intruders at other Navy bases, including at King's Bay, Ga., the home of the rest of the nation's Trident fleet.
The decision is the culmination of a 3 1/2 year environmental process to clear the way for what the Navy calls a swimmer interdiction security system.
The Navy looked at several options to protect against possible attack from swimmers, but officials said they couldn't find a better way of meeting new terrorism-driven security requirements. The marine mammals were its preferred alternative from the beginning. Several animal rights groups have said such use of dolphins and sea lions would pose health and other dangers to the mammals.
Other ideas explored by the Navy included combat swimmers or using remotely-operated vehicles. Neither system exists, however, and would have had to be developed, and neither could detect intruders. They could only respond after being alerted by an existing detection system.
Dolphins and sea lions can find intruders by themselves and have been doing so for years at other bases, the Navy said.
Several public hearings on the plan were held in the Puget Sound region. The overriding complaint raised was that Hood Canal is too cold for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Former Bainbridge Island, Wash. resident and dolphin biologist Toni Frohoff said average water temperatures at the Bangor submarine are considerably cooler than the Caribbean where many of the dolphins are found.
A Navy analysis found that the dolphins' metabolism would allow them to handle Bangor's winter water and air temperatures. Although the Navy expects no problems from the cold, the dolphins will stay in temperature-controlled in-water enclosures, according to documents relating to the plan. They'll only patrol in cold water in two-hour shifts.
The dolphins and sea lions are trained at the Navy's Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. None will be captured from the wild.
The Navy first proposed to deploy dolphins along Bangor's 4-mile shoreline nearly 20 years ago, but the Progressive Animal Welfare Society and other groups filed a lawsuit claiming that the Navy didn't assess the impact on the dolphins in its environmental review. A district court agreed and the Navy agreed not to proceed until it completed an environmental impact statement. Then the military lost funding for security and the plan was shelved until the 9/11 attacks led to stiffer security requirements.
Five tribes that harvest in the Hood Canal feared that the marine mammals' waste might foul their shellfish beds, so the Navy changed the plan to house the dolphins and sea lions in enclosed pools instead of open-mesh pens.
The dolphins, accompanied by handlers in small power boats, will work at night. If they find an intruder, they'll swim back to the boat and alert the handler, who will place a strobe light on a dolphin's nose. It will race back and bump the intruder's back, knocking the light off. The light will float to the surface, marking the spot. The dolphin will swim back to the boat, join the handler, and they'll clear out as security guards speed to the strobe to subdue the intruder.
Sea lions can carry in their mouths special cuffs attached to long ropes. If they find a suspicious swimmer, they clamp the cuff around the person's leg. The intruder can then be reeled in.
The dolphins' sonar is better than any that man has made and they're best for moving quickly in open water. Sea lions can see and hear better underwater and are better for shallower work around piers.