The Navy's secret sentries

SUN JOURNAL

Sea lions: Twenty of the native California mammals have been drafted to protect U.S. piers and ships in the Persian Gulf.

February 24, 2003|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MANAMA, Bahrain - The latest secret agents in the war against terrorism have slipped into this Persian Gulf port armed with remarkable powers to detect and detain any enemy bent on imperiling U.S. ships or sailors.

But unlike most of their colleagues, these undercover operatives are honking about their exploits.

A yelping brood of Navy-trained sea lions has settled into these strategic waters, where an armada has massed in the tense U.S.-Iraq standoff that looks ever more likely to lead to war. Graduates of the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, the sea lions have been flown here to help the Harbor Patrol Unit guard the headquarters of the Navy's 5th Fleet against underwater saboteurs.

"They're very vocal animals. It's a good sign when they make noise, because it shows they're getting comfortable," says Brenda Bryan, head trainer of the animals slithering around the Navy's special operations pier. She and three others accompanied the sea lions from San Diego and will serve as a liaison to the patrol and special operations teams.

Zak, a 385-pounder, hammed it up for TV cameras recently, performing thank-you dives from his floating pen after feedings and giving Bryan a high-one with a flipper.

In their sentry work, the sea lions are trained to alert humans when they detect an intruding diver and to mark the intruder with a "restraint device" - a C-shaped clamp the animal attaches to the diver's leg like a handcuff.

The sea lion then deploys a floating marker attached to the clamp before swimming away to accolades and safety.

"Sea lions can operate in shallow-water environments. They can see in near-darkness, and they have multidirectional hearing - all capabilities that humans don't have," says Lt. Josh Frey, a 5th Fleet public affairs officer.

The animals have other advantages over humans. They can swim 25 mph and dive repeatedly - as deep as 1,000 feet - without tiring, says Cmdr. John Wood. They are better suited to the work in the gulf than are dolphins, which have been part of naval undersea warfare exercises for four decades, because they adapt more easily to the region's higher temperatures and shallow harbors. Sea lions can even pursue a fleeing suspect onto dry land.

Neither Frey nor the San Diego training center's spokesman, Tom LaPuzza, would say how many of the California sea lions are being used, pointing to security concerns. Only two were visible during their media debut the other day.

But the program has prepared 20 sea lions for the search-and-detain missions, as well as for mine recovery and defusing.

"They're not looking for mines in the gulf. They're looking for divers," LaPuzza says, noting that the animals are capable of mine clearing but will be tested in their first conflict only on their skills at intruder apprehension.

The sea lions are already at work patrolling the Navy's pier at Mina Salman, just east of here, but they haven't yet discovered any intruders, Wood says.

The animals are, in effect, on trial for the next few weeks to determine whether the skills they learned can be replicated in the field. If so, LaPuzza says, the sea lions here could be permanently attached to the 5th Fleet harbor patrol. If not, they will be flown back to San Diego for more training.

Navy handlers say the animals are relatively safe because their activities are performed too quickly to allow enemy retaliation.

"The animals are treated pretty well. They are very valuable to us for the capabilities they provide and because they save lives," says Wood.

Still, animal rights groups object to the use of the animals in a military operation.

"What we have a problem with is anyone intentionally putting these animals in harm's way and knowing they could suffer and possibly die in the process," says Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Norfolk, Va.

Boyles says that as a biologist, she is concerned about the sea lions' ability to adapt to foreign waters and their survival should they become separated from their handlers. Wood and Bryan say the animals never stray from their handlers but would be able to adapt to the local waters even if they did wander off.

Sea lions have played a role in naval operations since the Vietnam War, and the San Diego center deployed marine mammals here in the late 1980s to provide mine-clearing assistance to U.S. ships in the gulf during the Iran-Iraq war.

The center's animals also have been used to provide security at waterfront events near their Southern California training grounds, such as the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego.

Carol J. Williams is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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