When the U.S. Naval Base in Kitsap-Bangor receives its newest recruits next year, not all of them will be wearing uniforms — and they'll be paid in fish.
Up to 20 Navy-trained bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions are scheduled to begin duty patrolling the shoreline around the submarine base as part of a bolstered security initiative started after the Sept. 11 attacks. The program, which was also used during the Vietnam War, is part of a 40-year history of military-trained dolphins and sea lions. According to the Navy, none of the participants has ever been injured during their service.
The animals will be on the lookout 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for swimmers or divers in the base's restricted waters, said Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the Navy Marine Mammal Program. Instead of intercepting potential threats, each animal will alert its human handler to a swimmer's presence, mark his or her location, and then swim away while humans apprehend the intruder, LaPuzza said. Scientific American provides a bit more detail:
If a dolphin senses an intruder, like a swimmer or a diver, it swims up to the boat and touches a sensor to alert a handler. Then, if the handlers and military personnel decide it is necessary to investigate the threat further, the handler will place a strobe light or a noisemaker on the dolphin's nose, LaPuzza said. The dolphin is trained to swim to the intruder, bump him or her from behind — which would knock the device off its nose — and then quickly swim away while military personnel take over.
The effort to enlist the marine mammals to patrol the Navy base has been in gear for almost two decades. A lack of funding and environmental concerns, however, stalled the program. Recent reviews regarding care of the new sentries — as well as how to deal with waste from the sea lions polluting shellfish harvests in the region — have eased concerns. Now, it's just a matter of introducing the new guards to their Navy brethren — and making sure there's plenty of fresh fish to hand out on payday.