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‘Sentinels of the Sea’ Featured in New Pentagon Channel Documentary

By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 5, 2007 – They take on military assignments impossible for humans, and even robots, to perform. They are rewarded with fresh food, protection from predators and loving human contact.

These unheralded, unknown, and often misunderstood marine mammals are saving countless lives during their underwater missions. Now, a new edition of the Pentagon Channel’s monthly documentary, “Recon,” offers a rare glimpse at the work of dolphins and sea lions who are acting as true “Sentinels of the Sea.”

“When people mention the marine mammal program, a lot of people think of Flipper,” said Mike Rothe, biosciences division manager at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center San Diego, home of the marine mammal program. “They don’t think of the hole in the USS Cole. I’m not saying that dolphins could have prevented that, because they couldn’t. But a well-placed limpet mine could do similar damage, and dolphins could protect against that.”

In March 2003, eight dolphins took part in an active combat situation when they helped military divers locate more than 100 mines and explosives hidden by Saddam Hussein’s forces in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

“Using biosonar ability, dolphins can detect underwater objects at great range with a speed and accuracy no present device can come close to,” said Recon host Air Force Master Sgt. Daniela Marchus, who added that while the job sounds extremely dangerous, in reality the risks are small.

“Mines are designed to go off when hit by a ship, not when bumped by a 300- to 400-pound dolphin,” she explained.

“The thing that’s really cool about marine mammals is that what they do really, really well is look for stuff,” Rothe said. “They look for stuff in shallow water; they look for stuff in complex environments. The Navy studied a broad range of these animals, looking for capabilities that could be applied to missions that were too difficult or dangerous for divers or couldn’t be done by hardware,” he said.

Consider the amazing dive capabilities of sea lions. For humans, diving to depths of a few hundred feet is considered an extremely serious task. Human divers must breathe a mixture of air and gasses mixed under pressure and surface in carefully calculated stages that, depending on the depth of the dive, could take hours.

“But the sea lion can go down and in two and a half, three minutes, they can complete a whole dive, hook up to a target, and we can recover it,” said DruAnn Price, who works with the mammals in San Diego.

“From its start after World War II, up through the end of the Cold War years, this program was classified,” Marchus said. “Still, some word of the Navy’s use of marine animals did get out, soon followed by misconceptions about what they were being trained to do.”

Countless wildly inaccurate rumors have been spread over the years about dolphins and sea lions taught by the military to be merciless killers, a notion this “Recon” puts to rest.

“There’s never been a thrust in the program to use them offensively,” Rothe said. “They’ve never been trained to drown swimmers. They’ve never been trained to kill people. They’ve never been trained to place mines on the hulls of ships. There’s no dissuading some people about these mysterious missions supposedly part of the marine mammal program.”

The Pentagon Channel crew got a fascinating, up-close look at how the unique social behavior of marine mammals is factored into the training process.

“All of our training emphasizes positive reinforcement,” said Dr. Mark Xitco, chief of scientific and veterinary support for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. “So we’re giving animals different types of rewards when they do the right thing. Obviously that includes food, but it also includes social attention from us: petting games, toys and even opportunities to engage in other interesting behaviors like going out to the ocean and hunting for mines and swimmers, (which) is a reward in and of itself.”

To get marine mammals deep into targeted areas of operation, sometimes they must be transported by boat miles out to sea. Pentagon Channel cameras captured the unusual process of “beaching,” during which dolphins scoot themselves aboard Navy vessels.

“By riding in the boats with us, the animals can be transported much more rapidly to the work site,” Xitco said. “But it’s not a natural behavior for the animals. It’s actually one of the more challenging things that we teach them.”

In the course of working with dolphins and sea lions over the decades, the program has become the most sophisticated marine mammal health care system on the planet.

“What the Mayo Clinic is to human medicine, the Navy program is to marine medicine,” said Dr. Eric Jensen, managing clinical veterinarian for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program.

No expense is spared to make sure dolphins and sea lions are afforded the best treatment available. That comes to food, which is, in essence, a daily gourmet feast.

“We have folks that work with the vet program that travel all over the world and inspect fish production facilities to make sure that the fish we’re getting for the animals is wholesome, excellent quality, (and that it’s) well taken care of as it’s being caught and as it’s being delivered to San Diego,” Jensen said.

While sailors take the lead in training marine mammals, soldiers are in charge of health care.

“Among the program’s medical staff is a team of veterinarians from the Army, which takes the lead in animal care for all the military services,” Marchus said. “When any of the Navy’s marine mammals are deployed, all the special care taken (in San Diego) goes on the road with them, including some of the Army’s veterinarian staff.”

“This provides us the capability to take our equipment wherever we go,” said Army Capt. Stephen Cassel, chief of clinical veterinary services for the marine program. “So if we need to do an ultrasound or anything like that, this is kind of our home away from home where we do our work.”

“This program has contributed more to the body of science on marine mammals than any other single organization,” Marchus said. “And each new bit of information is used to enhance the health and welfare of marine mammals and further define what they can and can’t do in support of Navy operations around the world.”

Working with dolphins to locate explosives requires weeks of highly specialized training for already well-trained explosive ordnance disposal specialists.

“It’s important to establish a relationship with them to get them to do what we want them to do and then reinforce it by the intimate relationship with the care and feeding of the dolphins,” Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Brian Ferris explained.

The Pentagon Channel was granted extensive access to these remarkable animals and their trainers, handlers and veterinarians, and afforded rarely seen underwater video of the mammals in action.

“Sentinels of the Sea” not only offers an incredible visual journey, but also dispels many myths about the marine mammal program. For instance, dolphins have not been captured from the wild for the program in more than 20 years. Instead, all are bred in the program’s San Diego headquarters. As for the few dolphins that were born in the wild decades ago, none has attempted to return to the wild. “They get all the love they need, all the attention,” handler John Bridger said.

While sea lions wear tracking devices to measure their progress underwater, none are tethered, and none has chosen to simply swim away. “Sea lions are pretty low energy,” Price said. “We’re providing them with a place to sleep that’s safe. They don’t have any predators to worry about. So because of that, coming home is a good thing.”

“Sentinels of the Sea” debuts July 9 at noon Eastern Time on the Pentagon Channel. It also will be available via podcast and video on demand at www.PentagonChannel.mil.

(David Mays works at the Pentagon Channel.)

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