Navy Plans to Draft Dolphin Minesweepers

Since the Cold War, bottlenose dolphins have risked their lives to settle manmade conflicts.

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Navy Plans to Draft Dolphin Minesweepers

A bottlenose dolphin named K-Dog helps clear mines in the Arabian Gulf in 2003. (Photo: Getty)

The United States Navy is gearing up for a potential stand-off with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz, the Atlantic Wire reports. If Iran blocks the strait with mines, the Navy plans to employ a highly controversial solution: mine-detecting dolphins.

In an interview with NPR, retired Admiral Tim Keating, who commanded the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, remained tight-lipped about the extent of dolphin use in the invasion of Iraq, but admitted, “They are astounding in their ability to detect underwater objects.”

Dolphins (as well as sea lions) have been used in the military since the Cold War to recover, implant and retrieve mines, and to patrol for enemy divers. The Navy currently uses 80 bottlenose dolphins and 30 California sea lions, kept near the mouth of the San Diego Bay. 

The Seattle Times describes an idyllic scene at the coastal military compound, “where the youngsters [leap] and [swim] inside a network of docks and pens like toddlers tumbling on a playground. Nearby, their human counterparts readied boats to ferry them to sea.”

However, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society offers a different version of dolphins as military pawns:

“In addition to the risk of the exercises themselves are the dangers of transporting dolphins long distances, their quality of life and life span are greatly reduced in captivity.”

In addition, animal advocates have petitioned the Defense Department arguing:

“[Since] forces regard the Navy dolphins as enemy dolphins, there might be attempts on the dolphins lives. There is also the risk of indiscriminate killing of wild dolphin populations because any dolphin can potentially be an enemy dolphin. Also, the inherent danger that a dolphin may be injured or killed in mine-hunting operations remains a very real threat.”

The Navy maintains that the dolphins “seem to enjoy pleasing their human handlers” and deny the claims of former Navy trainers who witnessed abuse during the training sessions.

Still, the fact remains that whether captured in the wild, or bred in captivity, or whether they appear to or actually “enjoy” their work, dolphins should not be victims of wars caused by very human traits of nationalism, greed, religious hatred or ego.

That many scientists argue that dolphins be awarded the status of  “non-human persons” only underscores the depth of our cynical exploitation of these marvelous animals.