May 31, 2011 -- Just days after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the Navy sent some real marine mammals into action off the Pacific.
Four bottle-nosed dolphins trained to find underwater mines demonstrated their abilities during Operation Trident Fury, a joint U.S.-Canadian military exercise held earlier this month off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia. The dolphins are part of the Navy's little-known Marine Mammal Program, which has trained sea lions, dolphins, and, yes, seals to find mines and enemy divers and was used successfully during the Iraq War.
According to Ed Budzyna, a spokesman for the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, the Marine Mammal Program has employed a menagerie of animals that includes sharks, rays, killer whales, pilot whales and seals since it was started as a secret program in the 1960s, but among the 100 animals currently in the San Diego-based program only sea lions and dolphins are "operational," meaning ready to be deployed in a combat situation.
The dolphins that took part in Trident Fury are trained to find mines, because their sonar abilities "are unmatched by anything manmade."
"The dolphins have a very high-level biological sonar, so finding objects like mines, for example, they have no problem finding them," said Budzyna. "They can be buried in the ocean floor or floating around or anywhere."
During the Vietnam War a team of dolphins was used to protect against enemy swimmers around the Army ammunition pier in Cam Ranh Bay. In 2003, at the outset of the Iraq War, a team of mine-hunting dolphins was used to clear the harbor of Umm Qasr on the Persian Gulf so that humanitarian ships could enter the port.
The sea lions currently serving in the Marine Mammal Program not only find mines, but recover the explosives by attaching cables to them. They have also been trained to look for enemy divers.
"The sea lions have very good low-light visibility underwater and great directional hearing so they can find divers, for example, who are swimming in the dead of night, in dark, murky water," Budzyna said. "They can find them no problem and then tag them, so that then the security personnel can go find out who that person is."
The Navy is also currently performing hearing tests on Beluga whales to see what tasks they might be able to perform. Two Beluga whales that belong to the program are currently on loan to Sea World at San Diego because they are not currently in use.
The Marine Mammal program began in the 1960s when the Navy acquired its first dolphin and began to research the animal's sonar capabilities. The program was kept secret for most of its history, but was revealed to the public in the 1990s.
The vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) told ABC News that the Navy, which also used a dog in the raid that killed bin Laden, shouldn't be using animals when it can use technology instead. "PETA believes that if the situation is too dangerous for a human being, it's too dangerous for an animal," said Kathy Guillermo. "Dolphins are particularly intelligent and sensitive. But dolphins don't make war and I don't think they should be used to fight our wars."
According to Budyzna, no actual explosives were used in the Trident Fury exercise. He also said that many of the animals that have been part of the Marine Mammal Program over the years, including the sharks and the rays, have only been used for research and training and were never intended to be "operational."