Thailand – Australia – United Kingdom

Flipper to Take a Bite out of Terrorism

According to US press reports, the Navy plans to use California sea-lions along with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to patrol for potential terrorist attacks at its large submarine base at Bangor in the Hood Canal, off Puget Sound in Washington state.

The training of dolphins for military duties is well known. Highly intelligent and capable of complex tasks, they have been used to locate mines and lost objects, and guard ships and harbours from attack. Their use stretches back at least to the 1970s and the Vietnam War.

The use of sea-lions, however, may come as news to many. They may not be quite as bright as dolphins but, with intelligence akin to a dog, they can be trained in some useful tasks.

At Bangor, both the sea-lions and dolphins would probably be used in conjunction with handlers aboard small craft, patrolling within the base’s perimeter.

It is reported that sea-lions could, for instance, be trained to carry in their mouths a limb cuff with long cord attached. They would fit the cuff over the ankle of a suspect diver or swimmer so that the suspect could be hauled aboard the covering vessel.

The dolphins, meanwhile, could be used at night for their sonar skills in locating suspect people or objects in the dark. They could be trained to carry a strobe light on their nose and bump into the suspect item, so that the light dislodges and floats to the surface to guide surface crew to the spot.

The project attracts mixed views. One marine mammal vet is reported to have said: “These animals are going to be well cared for, they are going to be safe and, in my judgment, they’ll probably be happy.”

Meanwhile animal welfare campaigners, including a marine biologist who has made comparative studies of wild and captive marine mammals, are reported to have said that the training would involve, fundamentally, enslavement and, unavoidably, some degree of stress.

Other options for the Navy are the use of human divers and ROVs capable of detecting suspect objects, human or otherwise.

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