"They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning, No one you see, is smarter than he, And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder, Flying there - under, under the sea!" - "Flipper" theme song
On an indigo sea, the presidential yacht bobs complacently, the commander in chief oblivious to the assassins silently gliding below - killer cetaceans readying to blow him out of the water. Literally.
In "Day of the Dolphin," George C. Scott plays a researcher who teaches his aquatic charges to talk, only to have them kidnapped by right-wing radicals hatching an assassination plot. That 1973 flick was not only cheesy - the dolphin voices, supplied by Buck Henry, made them sound, in one reviewer's words, like "inarticulate Smurfs" - but its fantastical plot underscored the fascination humans have with these highly intelligent marine mammals. And its conspiracy slant echoed the age when the United States and the Soviet Union were neck and neck in "dolphin wars," and when rumours of homicidal Flippers wielding hypodermic needles flew like the saltwater spray at SeaWorld.
These days, dolphins in the military are again in the public consciousness - but with far less sinister overtones. Classified information until 11 years ago, the Navy's 43-year-old Marine Mammal Program is now a public-relations sis-boom-bah session: An undisclosed number of the Navy's 75 trained bottlenose dolphins have been scouring the port of Umm Qasr for Iraqi mines - the first time they've performed this role in wartime - accompanied by a contingent of up to 20 sea lions, which are trained to detect and capture enemy divers, Navy officials say.
To date, the Navy has verified that the dolphins have found four mines, though some media reports say the unofficial count numbers in the dozens. And even as war seemingly wanes, the dolphins will likely be scanning the harbour for the near future.
The United States is the only country with an active military marine mammal program. The Russians disbanded their program in the early 1990s, selling off their dolphins to private and public entities. Iran purchased two of them; Iraq reportedly has none.
When the Navy program was created in 1960, dolphins were studied purely for a better understanding of their hydrodynamics - "In other words, why do they swim so fast?" explains Navy public-affairs officer Tom LaPuzza of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, where the program is based. But interest in echolocation - the dolphins' ability to survey their environment acoustically - dovetailed with the development of military sonar and radar systems, he says, "and sonar capability became a primary focus of what we were doing."
The dolphins were first deployed in 1970 in the Vietnam War's Operation Short Time, where they were used to find enemy swimmers around the ammunition piers in Cam Ranh Bay. They performed the same function in Bahrain during the Iran-Iraq war in the late-'80s, and they patrolled the waters of San Diego Harbor during the Republican National Convention in 1996.
It wasn't until the mid-'80s that the dolphins were trained for mine hunting. Using its internal sonar, the dolphin scans the ocean bottom while the handler waits in a small boat with rubber disks or tennis balls attached to the front and back. If the dolphin comes up empty, it hits the mark on the back; a find is communicated by tapping the front marker. In the latter case, the handler gives a marker to the dolphin, which drops it beside the mine without making contact, and returns to the boat.
Although much has been made of the dolphins' diving capability - they can plunge to 1,200-plus feet - that's rather beside the point, says LaPuzza.
"The sonar system that the Navy has works real well as long as you're not in shallow water, where reverberation from engines and waves interferes with equipment." “ In the shallow water, where hardware systems are difficult to work, that's where dolphins live their lives. And that's where we use them.” Ditto for swimmer defense - most of the sea lion searches occur near pier pilings or ship hulls.
Both species - the Navy, in its inanimistic lingo, refers to them as "systems" - have their respective strengths. "When dolphins are doing swimmer defense, they let you know the diver is there and then they swim off. The sea lion can help you catch him," LaPuzza explains. And the amphibious sea lion is easier to transport.
While they lack the dolphin's sonar, "sea lions have incredible underwater directional hearing and can see in the dark.” Their skill at nabbing the bad guys - by sneaking up behind them and attaching a clamp - was an accidental discovery: After sea lions were used by the Navy to retrieve fired test antisubmarine rockets, someone theorized that the clamp would work as well on a leg as it would on a spent torpedo.
Regardless of species, all the Navy marine mammals are trained the same way: with operant conditioning. An approach that accentuates the positive, operant conditioning motivates the animal to perform a behaviour by rewarding it.
“ Nothing's better," says Karen Pryor of Boston, a behavioural biologist and author of the leading popular text in operant conditioning, "Don't Shoot the Dog.” Pryor started working with dolphins at Hawaii's Sea Life Park and Oceanic Institute in 1963, and as its head trainer, she oversaw research training, including some on dolphin cognition for the Navy.
Whether you are teaching a dolphin to flag a mine for the Navy or to trim an underwater Christmas tree for an audience, "the principles are the same," Pryor says. They all involve harnessing a dolphin's creativity and intelligence. "You're supposed to find a mine. There's nobody to tell you to look up or look down. You have to do that for yourself."
Despite the picture-perfect photo-ops in the Gulf, the Navy's marine mammal program has its critics. Among them is Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist in the research and investigations department of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Early this month, Boyle wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, asking him to end the military use of dolphins and other animals. The impetus, she explained, was the disappearance of a Navy dolphin named Tacoma at Umm Qasr.
“The main reason we're against this program is because of the very real possibility that it's going to cost lives as opposed to saving them," Boyles says. "Our real concern is that a dolphin gets distracted and wanders off," which, she says, is what happened to Tacoma. "They cannot perform the task that they are given, and should not be relied on even as a secondary or tertiary tool."
LaPuzza points out that by the time Boyles wrote her letter, Tacoma had returned to his handlers, who use a "recall pinger" to reorient the dolphin. When dolphins disappear, says LaPuzza, it is often because of inclement weather or disorientation, kind of like a kid separated from his parents at Yosemite - not because they've chosen to go AWOL.
Bob Bailey of Hot Springs, Ark., an animal trainer who has worked with 140 different species, was the Navy program's first director of training in the early 1960s. He recalls working the open ocean off Point Mugu, Calif., with dolphins caught barely three months earlier.
“ These dolphins, for whatever reason, gave up their wild lives," he explains, adding that they worked as far as a quarter-mile away. "The one real complaint I had with the Navy is I couldn't get them interested in doing research on why this is the case.
“ That part we don't fully understand: Why can you capture a mustang wandering around the Southwest, and in the space of three to six months, that horse is attached to people? The horse could run away, but it doesn't. Why not? That's never been answered."
But Richard O'Barry, a marine mammal specialist who trained dolphins for the "Flipper" television series in the 1960s, doesn't think dolphins are happy to tag along with their Navy caretakers. And he says dolphins trained with food rewards are inherently unreliable - which is why he needed five dolphins to shoot "Flipper."
“ A dolphin isn't like a dog that will do something for a pat on the head," he says. "When Flipper No. 1 had eaten 10,000 fish, I lost control, and I'd have to bring out Flipper No. 2."
For that reason, O'Barry says, Navy dolphins wear antiforaging devices - muzzles to prevent them from noshing. (LaPuzza confirms this, but says they are to ensure the dolphins do not ingest something harmful, not to control appetite.)
Pryor adds that food is not a dolphin's only motivator. "A reward might be the chance to jump," she says. "They like to be touched. They like to be splashed. Some like to have their mouths tickled. They like all kinds of play - 'I'll push you, you push me back' or keep away."
The dolphins' work, she continues, "is much more than a series of shaped, mechanically executed behaviours.” Because operant conditioning encourages the animals to think, "the results are very different from conventional training. The animal has an idea of the task and can problem-solve and bring his own initiative into it."
Even if trainers were inclined to punish or abuse their charges, that's simply counterproductive, says Pryor. "This is an animal you wouldn't dream of treating badly because it will quit on you immediately. You couldn't get this elaborate work out of them by force. They have a big reinforcement history of getting paid well to do this. If you start interfering with this kind of learning with physical restraint or control, the learning stops."
LaPuzza notes that blame for missed mines is often imputed to the wrong species.
"Whatever you give the dolphins to find, they will find 100 percent of the time - assuming that you gave them an exact replication of what you were looking for," he says.
Dolphin radar distinguishes between densities: It is not enough to ask a dolphin to find a bathtub - a trainer must specify whether it's a porcelain tub or a metal one. The same goes for "practice" mines: Researchers have had to develop material that replicates the way real explosives are perceived by dolphin sonar. "If we screw up," concludes LaPuzza, "they may miss something."
O'Barry has plenty of other criticisms for the Navy program: The Gulf waters will be too hot. (LaPuzza: The Navy spends several months acclimating the dolphins to higher temperatures, and they only work a couple of hours at a time; otherwise, they are in climate-controlled pools.)
The presence of the military dolphins will endanger all dolphins in the area: "You can't tell the good ones from the bad ones - you just blow them all up and let God sort it out.” (LaPuzza: The harbour was secured before the dolphins were brought in.)
And, finally, "there is a cruelty-free alternative - it's called side-scan sonar."
Here, surprisingly, the two sides agree.