Animal Tales: Dolphins do duty in wartime

By ALEX CUKAN, UPI Science News   |   March 28, 2003 at 3:14 PM   |   0 comments

Ever since Hannibal of Carthage crossed the Alps using elephants, and Alexander the Great rode into battle astride his magnificent steed, Bucephalus, animals have served important roles in warfare.

Today, in the war with Iraq, specially trained dolphins are being used to locating mines in the Khor Abd Allah waterway, Iraq's artery to the Persian Gulf.

"The U.S. Navy has been using marine mammals for more than 30 years. Dolphins are uniquely suited for numerous missions including mine detection, mine location and detecting (enemy) swimmers," Lt. Cmdr. John Bernard, a U.S. Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, told United Press International's Animal Tales. "Marine mammals help save lives using their natural ability."

An unspecified number of bottlenose dolphins are working in the waterways of Iraq where humanitarian aid must pass to get to the Iraqi people.

The British ship, H.M.S. Sir Galahad, docked Friday at the port town of Umm Qasr to distribute several hundred tons of humanitarian aid including food, water and blankets. Its arrival was delayed because of additional mines found in the waterway.

Deputy Coalition Maritime Joint Component Commander, Rear Adm. David Snelson of the Royal Navy, said although many of the mines placed there were from previous conflicts "there is indication that Iraq has tried to lay new mines to delay the coalition forces getting aid into the country," according to Jane's Navy International.

Although land mines can be less than two inches in diameter and made mostly of plastic, mines in waterways are larger, about the size of a small trashcan. They can be tethered by a line or left to float freely.

U.S. Naval Special Clearance Team One, based in San Diego, trains and handles the Navy's marine mammal program, in which dolphins find mines and sea lions patrol waterways for enemy swimmers who might plant explosives on naval vessels.

Some sea lions have been trained to not only detect an enemy swimmer but to push a foot cuff on him that marks him and swim away.

As intelligent as a smart dog and easily trained, dolphins have been used to detect mines or protect Navy divers since the Vietnam War. The dolphins detect the mines, which are made of metal. They are trained to mark the mines with floating buoys. The animals do nothing with the mines; they simply locate them, mark them with a buoy and U.S. Navy divers detonate the mines after the dolphins have been removed from the area.

Dolphins find food and are trained to find mines using "sonar" or, more correctly, bat-like echolocation, which enables them to "see" with their ears by listening for echoes.

According to the Web site SeaWorld.org, dolphins produce a series of directional clicks, each of which lasts from 50 to 128 microseconds. The clicks pass through the melon -- a rounded region of a dolphin's forehead consisting mostly of fats.

"The melon acts as an acoustical lens to focus these sound waves into a beam, which is projected forward into water in front of the animal," SeaWorld.org explains.

"Sound waves travel through water at a speed of about 0.9 mi/sec, which is 4.5 times faster than sound traveling through air. The sound waves bounce off objects in the water and return to the dolphin in the form of an echo."

The sounds are conducted through the lower jaw to the middle ear, inner ear, and then to hearing centers in the brain via the auditory nerve. The brain receives the sound waves in the form of nerve impulses, which relay the messages of sound and enable the dolphin to interpret the sound's meaning, according to SeaWorld Adventure Parks.

Some of the dolphins used by the U.S. Navy and other coalition units also carry a camera attached to their dorsal fin to aid the divers in identifying the type of mine.

Dolphins are altruistic and work cooperatively in hunting for food. Males often assist one another in obtaining a mate, they will support an injured dolphin at the surface so it can breathe and entire pods will put themselves in jeopardy to come to the aid of a mother and her calf, according to the Web site of the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, Dolphins.org.

Dolphins are adaptable, feeding on available fish and living almost everywhere in the oceans except in the polar seas. They also have a long history of working cooperatively with humans.

In southern Brazil, bottlenose dolphins have been the initiators of fishing cooperative.

Town records indicate since 1847, dolphins have alerted the fishermen of Laguna, Brazil, of "feeding time" by stationing themselves offshore in a line, according to Dolphins.org.

When a dolphin leaves the line, swims to sea, returns, stops and dives, the fishermen know it is time to put out their nets.

"Few fishermen waste their time casting until instructed to do so by the dolphins' actions while the dolphins seem to take advantage of the confusion, which results as the men cast their nets, feeding on their own from the remaining fish," said the Dolphin Research Center.

Though the dolphins are effective mine detectors, organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals do not like the idea of dolphins being drafted.

"War is a human endeavor and innocent animals should not be put in harm's way," Stephanie Boyles, wildlife biologist for PETA in Washington, D.C., told UPI's Animal Tales. "Dolphins were meant to live and die in the water and not take plane trips to the Middle East. To them, finding mines is a game and they don't know the consequences if they fail."

Boyles does not question the dolphins and sea lions' treatment by the U.S. Navy, but she fears the dolphins' mine detection work could give the military a false sense of security.

"They don't need to rely on the dolphins. They have other methods to detect mines," Boyles said. "There is also no guarantee or even much likelihood that these animals will save humans and, certainly, our troops deserve the very best in surveillance."

The U.S. Navy has ships that can sweep for mines and helicopters that can detect mines from the air deployed in the Persian Gulf, but it does not reveal the success rate for the mechanical or dolphin mine detection systems.

However, Bill McClain, a retired U.S. Navy Seal, who helped develop the dolphin mine sweeping program in the 1970s, recently told KCRA-TV in Sacramento, Calif.: "The minesweepers are something like 94 percent effective ... dolphins were 99.8 percent effective."

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