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Secret Agents of the Deep

American and British troops are getting help from some unusual secret agents in the war against Iraq. The agents are marine mammals trained dolphins and sea lions. They have been flown to the Persian Gulf to assist with some dangerous tasks.

Two specially trained bottle-nosed Atlantic dolphins have located mines in the waters off Umm Qasr, an Iraqi port. Their work has helped clear the way for shipments of food and other aid to enter the port.

The dolphins, named Makai and Tacoma, are trained to locate mines without touching them, which could cause the mines to explode. The dolphins find the mines through echolocation, a sort of natural sonar system that these animals have. They carry sensors that are mounted to their fins. The sensors record the dolphins' responses to underwater targets. That tells their handlers where the mines are.

The sea lions are helping to protect U.S. ships in Bahrain harbor, on the Persian Gulf. The Navy brought in the sea lions after hearing reports that terrorists might use divers to attach explosives to ships' hulls.

The sea lions operate in shallow waters. They are trained to zero in on swimmers or divers who approach military ships or piers. The sea lion swims quietly up behind the diver, carrying a clamp in its mouth. Before the diver knows what's happening, the animal slips the clamp onto his leg and deploys a buoy that marks his position. The clamp keeps the diver from swimming away.

The Navy won't say how many sea lions have been sent to the Persian Gulf. But at least two, named Alex and Zak, are on daily patrol. They are also trained to flag mines and to chase intruders away by honking loudly.

The U.S. Navy has been training dolphins, sea lions, and other marine mammals since the early 1960's. These animals are famous for their intelligence, and they are superb swimmers.

This is the first time that sea lions have seen active duty in a combat area. But dolphins were used in the 1970's during the Vietnam War. And in the late 1980's, Navy dolphins patrolled Bahrain harbor to protect U.S. ships from enemy swimmers and mines.
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