Flipper as Rambo: Dolphins can be great naval security tools

April 10, 2003

GALVESTON, April 10, 2003 - Relying on security in wartime can come from a variety of sources - even the flippers of dolphins as they continue to demonstrate in Iraqi waters.

Dolphins, sea lions and other marine animals are being equipped with cameras and special sensors to detect underwater mines and explosives and they are "naturals" to do so, says a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who is internationally known for his work in outfitting marine life with underwater optics.

Randall Davis, professor of marine biology, has been equipping seals and other animals with cameras for 15 years and says dolphins can be a vital security link when it comes to detecting unwanted materials.

"Dolphins are one of the few creatures that have natural sonar abilities," Davis explains.

"They can detect objects buried three to four inches deep in sediment, such as a mine, and relay that information back to humans. So what they do can be literally a lifesaving act," Davis adds.

Their natural sonar capability, plus the fact they are easily trainable, make dolphins one of the U.S. military's best underwater security forces. American military leaders anticipate dolphins may help find even more mines around Iraq's main port and adjacent coastal waters.

Davis says dolphins can be attached with cameras or sensors - often mounted on their flippers - and are trained to find certain undersea objects. Once such an object, like a mine, is located, the animal is trained to relay the information back to humans and from there, Navy SEALS or other personnel can disarm the devices.

"For the dolphins, finding the mines is usually the easy part. The tricky part can be the communication process from the dolphin to humans," Davis says.

"But dolphins are incredibly smart. That's why the Navy owns more bottlenose dolphins than anyone else - about 100 - and they train them in San Diego in the Navy's Marine Mammal Program and other places to locate explosive devices. The bottlenose dolphin is commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico."

Sea lions have also been trained to locate suspicious intruders and can even snap a lock or clamp on a human leg and then swim away. The clamp is connected to a buoy or rope that signals Navy personnel on the surface that a potential terrorist has been detected.

Davis, who has attached cameras to seals that dive as deep as 1,000 feet or more to record their eating and living habits, says the future of such marine security forces is promising.

"The cameras are getting better, the recording devices are much improved, the sensors are better - all of the technology is improving all the time," Davis says.

Texas A&M University

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