Technology and weapons are not the only things helping our American troops succeed in the War on Terror. Animals also play an important part in keeping you safe.
It's hard to imagine lovable creatures like dolphins and sea lions defending our country. But their mission is not something to take lightly.
More than 100 of them are being trained in the San Diego Bay as part of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. The goal is to protect our military and civilians in the global War on Terror.
"It's not for show, and we take our job very seriously," said Chris Harris, the operations supervisor of the dolphin training. "Although it looks like we're having a lot of fun, we are, but the end product is that we can go forward, take these animals any place in the world and insure that our sailors and Marines are in safe waters."
The program started nearly 50 years ago when the Navy began studying the incredible swimming abilities of the dolphin. That study revealed that dolphins have certain capabilities ideal for helping the military. Biological sonar is at the top of that list.
"Their ability to project sound, listen to those echoes and to draw, if you would, a picture of what's out there is nothing that we can replicate accurately with technology at this point," Harris explained.
Targeting Sea Mines
The Navy discovered a dolphin's biosonar makes it uniquely skilled at finding sea mines -- sophisticated underwater weapons designed to sink ships or kill the enemy.
The dolphin places a marker near the mine so it can be avoided or removed. Sea mines are made so that they cannot be easily set off by animals bumping into them.
Sea lions, who have been used by the Navy since 1975, also have sensory skills that surpass those found in people. They have incredible vision and can see in low light conditions five times better than humans.
Their excellent eyesight and highly sensitive hearing help them to find objects in murky, deep water. But sea lions do not work near live mines. Instead, they help train Navy pilots learning how to drop practice mines.
"The pilots have a spot they're supposed to hit," said Dru Price, a senior trainer with the sea lion program. "The sea lions can go down, hook up a target. With GPS, we can get the actual location, and find out how close they were to their mark."
In addition, the sea lions attach devices to the exercise targets so they can be recovered easily from the ocean floor.
Defending Humans, Collaring Intruders
All this activity requires a lot of diving, something dolphins and sea lions also do much better than humans. These marine mammals can repeatedly make deep water dives without getting decompression sickness like people do.
The dolphins and sea lions are also trained to defend our ports and harbors by detecting unauthorized swimmers or divers.
"So if someone were to try and sneak in and approach a ship where the ship's at anchor, or were the ship at a dock, the dolphin will detect, identify, categorize that as being someone that shouldn't be there," Harris said. They "then mark the position so that Naval security forces can deal with that threat."
"They come back and they let us know that they found something," Price said about the sea lions. "Once they do that, they're given a grabber that they attach to the leg of the person that's out there. It's almost like a handcuff that the sea lions can carry."
Because dolphins and sea lions have hydrodynamic bodies and move quickly in the water, suspicious swimmers are marked before they even know what happened.
Training for War
"They are absolutely a very key part in the War on Terror," Price emphasized.
Before they can fulfill their roles, however, the animals must be trained. Trainers are on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sarah Radloff works with the sea lions.
"It's pretty easy once you get going, but like I said, it's a long process that takes many years for them to trust you and move on through the different types of trainers that they see everyday," Radloff said.
Harris says the key is to keep it simple.
"Small, incremental steps in the training, so that the dolphin is very likely to have continuing success," he explained. "We don't move so quickly as to confuse the animal."
Throughout the training facility, you'll find examples of that step-by-step process. Training sessions also take place in the open water.
For instance, dolphins learn to follow a boat. It's a building block exercise that makes sure the animal is comfortable and reliable on a mission during a time of war.
Animal Rights Violations?
But not everything has been smooth water for the Navy Marine Mammal Program. Over the years, it's acquired its share of vocal critics.
Animal rights and welfare organizations have accused the Navy of using the dolphins as offensive weapons in attack missions. There also have been charges that the program abused the animals.
Program leaders say the accusations are false.
"We don't put our animals in harm's way," said Mike Rothe, the manager of the Biosciences Division. "It's challenging -- the work that we have them do. We train them to do it, we don't force them to do it. We've never used the animals offensively."
Workers stand by the program, including the care of the animals, even calling it the "world's finest marine mammal veterinary facility."
"Most of the time, you and I wouldn't see our doctors on a daily basis, but often times, we will go down and see our patients once a day just so we can monitor them," said Capt. Stephen Cassle, the chief of clinical veterinary services.
Healthy animals translate into healthy missions to keep our military and citizens safe.
"We fulfill our role, hopefully all coming in for a team win," Harris said.
*Original broadcast April 19, 2008.