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Anti-Terror Dolphins, Sea Lions Train in San Diego

San Diegans have grown up seeing dolphins and sea lions perform at Sea World, where they're trained to thrill audiences. But not so far away, at a Navy installation on Point Loma, the highly intellige

Anti-Terror Dolphins, Sea Lions Train in San Diego

(Photo: Navy marine mammal handlers train a sea lion to detect underwater ordinance during a training exercise at the Space and Naval Warefare Systems Center on April 12, 2007 in San Diego, California. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images .)

San Diegans have grown up seeing dolphins and sea lions perform at Sea World, where they're trained to thrill audiences. But not so far away - at a Navy installation on Point Loma, the highly intelligent marine mammals are undergoing training for very different purposes. KPBS Radio's Andrea Hsu has more. In a fenced-in enclosure in the San Diego Bay, a California sea lion named Reagan is getting his daily body inspection. He lifts a flipper for a trainer and then rolls on his back to expose his belly. He's given a clean bill of health and awarded with fish.


Later, Reagan will go out to the bay to practice locating and retrieving objects - such as simulated mines. That's something sea lions excel at given their excellent eyesight and ability to see in very low light.

Meanwhile, within shouting distance, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is lying docilely on her side, in the water. At the command of a trainer, she vocalizes. 

These simple interactions are part of a continuous effort to build strong bonds between the animal and the humans who work with her. Later, she may head out to the ocean, to practice detecting swimmers using her biological sonar.

These two animals belong to the Navy's Marine Mammal Program, which was first established in 1960. Today, the Navy employs 75 dolphins -- three quarters of which were collected from the Gulf of Mexico before 1989. The rest were born in captivity. The program also has about 30 sea lions -- most of which were born in captivity.

Tom LaPuzza, public affairs officer for the program, says daily training operations mean that there are animals ready to deploy at any time.


LaPuzza: We actually have 72 hour time limit that says somebody somewhere around the world identifies a critical need for a marine mammal system to hunt for mines, to detect swimmers, and so on. We get the animals out of the water, and put them on an airplane, and within the 72 hour time period, they will be on site wherever they to do, performing their function.

And yet, in the history of the program, there have been relatively few deployments. The first was to Vietnam in 1970 to protect a U.S. ammunition pier in Cam Ranh Bay.

More recently, in 1987, a team of dolphins was sent to Bahrain to protect a U.S. fleet. They were sent back to the Persian Gulf in 2003. And that same year, to Um Qasr, Iraq for mine clearing operations that allowed humanitarian supplies and troops to enter port. 

On the home front, dolphins were used here in San Diego during the Republican National Convention in 1996, which took place shortly after the bombing in Atlanta during the Olympics. LaPuzza says the Secret Service could only do so much to secure the waterfront convention site.

LaPuzza: While they're very good at things like taking away mailboxes and sealing up manhole covers, they didn't know exactly what to do about potential attack from the sea. So the Navy swimmer defense dolphins were out every night, providing that security from the water against somebody coming ashore.

And now, the Navy is looking into sending dolphins and sea lions up to a naval base in Washington State. An environmental assessment is underway. Marine mammals already serve in a similar capacity at a naval base in Georgia.

The Navy has been criticized for its use of marine mammals for such purposes. But La Puzza counters that the animals are operating in what is essentially a safe, natural environment, and that they're treated with respect. 

In close to five decades of the program, he says, only two animals have died unnatural deaths -- both from bacterial infections. None has been blown up by mines. And though the animals are not tethered while they're training in the ocean, only 12 in the history of the program have not come back.

Still, the Navy's long term strategic plan is to phase out the program.

LaPuzza: We're hopeful that the day will come when the mechanical systems are effective enough that we can rely on them, and then we'll retire all the animals.

The life-span of dolphins and sea lions is generally thought to be about 25 or 30 years. The Navy has in its program animals that are over the age of 40, including one that served in Vietnam, and is still working today.

For KPBS, I'm Andrea Hsu.