Dolphins Deployed as Undersea Agents in Iraq

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
March 28, 2003
The hundreds of thousands of American, British and other forces stationed in the Persian Gulf region are currently employing some rather unusual allies in the battle to depose the Iraqi leadership.

A crack troop of United States Navy-trained dolphins were at work this week, helping to locate potentially lethal and obstructive anti-ship mines, littering the seafloor near the port of Umm Qasr and other locations.

The Navy's Special Clearance Team One from San Diego, California, comprises platoons of human divers, unmanned underwater vehicles and intensively trained bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins' unrivalled underwater sonar abilities, and great intelligence, make them uniquely suitable for locating mines in cluttered shallow-water environments where military electronic hardware is rendered virtually useless.

"Dolphins have the best sonar on this planet… the Navy does not have any technological sonar that can find buried mines except for their dolphin system," said Whitlow Au, who studies marine bioacoustics at the University of Hawaii's Marine Mammal Research Program in Kailua. "They can not only find objects like mines that may or may not be buried into the seabed, but they can distinguish them from clutter such as coral rock, and man-made debris," he said.

Sailor's Best Friend

In order to make way for ships carrying humanitarian aid and other vessels, the dolphins are "clearing sea mines in the harbor at Umm Qasr and potentially other places," said Tom Lapuzza, spokesperson for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, where more than 20 dolphins are based.

In return for fish rewards, the animals use echolocation to search for mines on the seafloor, said Lapuzza. Upon detection of a possible mine, the animals notify their military handlers, who choose whether to send the animals back with an acoustic transponder. These transponders, which are carefully dropped nearby, can be used by human divers to locate and destroy the munitions.

Dolphins use vocalizations as a kind of biological radar to scope out the surroundings. Objects hidden from sight—such as fish or mines—are revealed, when high- or low-frequency clicking sounds are bounced back in the dolphin's direction. Dolphin sonar is incredibly precise. "They can pick out objects like you wouldn't believe," said Lapuzza—even down to detecting different types of metal, for example.

Though military gadgets for detecting mines work well in the open ocean, they can't cope with the amount of reverberation from clogged and cluttered harbor floors. Dolphins, on the other hand, have sonar "developed over 50 million years of evolution," precisely to work in shallow water environments, he said.

In addition, dolphins are obviously much better at working underwater than humans, said Mike Fedak, a marine mammal biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Dolphins "cover a lot of ground fast… are very bright, very adaptable, and extremely trainable," he said, adding up to a package the Navy has found hard to resist.

Dolphins, however, are not the only marine mammals currently stationed in the gulf. Navy-trained California sea lions were also shipped in from San Diego prior to the conflict.

While the animals lack sonar, they do posses superb directional underwater hearing and the ability to see in near-darkness. Sea lions are used by the Navy to retrieve submerged objects, and have also been trained to locate enemy divers, attach restraint devices or markers, and make a speedy getaway.

Dangerous Mission?

Although dolphins were used in the U.S. military exercise operation "Blue Game" to clear practice mines off the coast of Norway in 2001, this is the first time they have been deployed in a real war situation. The Navy developed the method of using dolphins to locate mines in the mid-1980s, but has been training marine mammals—including beluga, pilot and killer whales—for a variety of tasks since the 1960s.

Dolphins have also been used to detect enemy swimmers and divers, and potentially, to attach markers. The swimmer defense system was deployed in Vietnam in the early 1970s and also in the Persian Gulf during the Iran/Iraq war of the late 1980s.

According to the Navy, dolphins and human divers are recovered and removed from the area before "target neutralization" of mines, if required, occurs. Though using dolphins for mine detection might seem a risky activity, the Navy argues the animals are unlikely to be hurt.

Sea mines are specifically set up not to detonate when dolphins, sharks and other fishes swim by, said Lapuzza, "otherwise they'd be going off all the time." The mines, which pick up magnetic signals, detonate when a large mass of metal—such as a naval vessel—passes overhead, he said.

However, some organizations disagree with the Navy's assessment of the risks involved. "We believe that our troops deserve the very best defense possible, but this isn't it," said Stephanie Boyles, Wildlife Biologist at the People For Ethical Treatment of Animals, a lobbying group in Norfolk, Virginia.

Boyles argues that though the animals are perfectly capable of performing the tasks, they are so intelligent and free-willed that they sometimes choose not to. "You can't have that kind of subordination in a life or death situation, " she said. "The dolphins have no idea that lives will be lost if they fail to perform a task properly… [Therefore] the U.S. military is putting them in harm's way," said Boyles.

Dolphins are just as reliable as drug-sniffing dogs and guard dogs, said Au. Over 30 years and many hundreds of thousands of instances of releasing dolphins, untethered, to locate dummy mines in the open ocean, no more than seven animals have failed to return to their handlers, according to Navy figures.

Next week, National Geographic News will publish a story about the dogs of war. Please see the related stories links below for how the military is turning to nature to look for the next generation of secret weapons.

More Iraq Stories from National Geographic News
National Geographic News: Iraq
Humanitarian Crisis Looming for Iraq, Aid Workers Warn
National Geographic TV Reporter Embedded in Iraq
Dogs of War: Inside the U.S. Military's Canine Corps
Iraq Conflict: Following the "Laws of War"?
Dolphins Deployed as Undersea Agents in Iraq
Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq
Iraq War Threatens Ancient Treasures
Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"
Iraq Expert Predicts "Problems of Control"

More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.