Prisoners of War

IssueJune - August 2004
Feature by Liz Sandeman

The Marine Connection, an international London-based charity dedicated to the conservation of dolphins and whales, regularly highlights its concerns about the use of dolphins in war. Iraq 2003 was no different.

Once again the US Navy used marine mammals from its Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit Three (EODMU3) based in Coronado, California, and nine dolphins were flown to the Gulf, along with a number of trained sea lions from the navy's Mammal Maritime Unit in San Diego. Whilst one of the dolphins, Makai, had been at EODMU3 for 20 years, this was the first time any of EODMU3 animals had been used for mine clearance. The navy has over 40 animals altogether, some trained to find mines, some to home in on objects like test torpedoes with acoustic pingers, and others used for protecting ships and harbours. The US Navy has been training dolphins for war since the 1960s.

Umm... no thanks!

The dolphins sent to Iraq were re-trained to use their natural sonar to search for underwater mines. They are trained not to touch the mines - they stop short and mark the area for human divers. Fitted with underwater cameras, the animals use their sensitive sonar to scan the water bottom. One of the dolphins, Tacoma, a 22-year-old male, promptly disappeared after he was released for his first mission near Umm Quasar, which raised questions of the effectiveness of the navy's dolphin programme.

The use of sea mammals in combat is unethical and unsafe because the creatures do not understand the life-and-death nature of their work. Marine biologists say that such intelligent animals have minds of their own and could take off or be distracted from their work. Tacoma had been in Iraq for less than 48 hours when he went missing, his role was to sweep the way clear for the arrival of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Sir Galahad. The dolphin eventually returned but in the interim, the US Navy had brought in another dolphin by helicopter. The navy's oldest dolphin, 33-year-old Makay had a painful experience when he too, took off from duty once in Florida. A shark attacked him, leaving him with scars on his back. One of the navy killer whales went missing years ago and was never found.


Dolphins and whales are highly intelligent but they are also very social and can be easily distracted by other animals or their wild cousins. Let's not forget that dolphins too are “prisoners of war”. The dolphins and sea lions used by the US navy in the Persian Gulf were taken from their natural homes or bred in captivity and forced to give up their freedom and their large family groups. They are denied free access to food so that trainers can force them to do what they would never choose to do on their own. These animals never enlisted and the navy should not be allowed to put innocent animals at risk.

Animals are not expendable artillery or equipment to be used and tossed out when they have outlived their usefulness. One of the problems for wild populations of dolphins in war situations similar to Iraq is that all wild marine mammals will be targeted for fear they might be carrying explosives. All dolphins in war zones are endangered even if they are not “enlisted”,and forces threatened by the use of navy dolphins will shoot any dolphin in the area in an effort to get the navy dolphins.

Moby Dick

Some of the military dolphins have come from the Mississippi Sound where the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport has supplied dolphins to the military for 30 years. Moby Solangi, Director of Marine Life, had all the major contracts from the mid-seventies through to late eighties for catching dolphins for the US navy and other dolphinariums; it is estimated he has captured 200 dolphins for this trade. The animals are given years of specialised training before being assigned to the task of using their sonar to search for mines. Tacoma, the dolphin that went missing in the Gulf, was over twenty years old and was most likely wild-caught. The dolphins caught for the navy are usually between two and six years old when captured.

The US military is trying to exempt itself from environmental laws: if successful this would allow them to capture even more dolphins. War dolphins have their own personal trainer who builds up a relationship with his or her animal and, of course, the navy insists the danger to the dolphins is minimal. The navy has also been trying to work with beluga whales, but these whales are too big for mine clearing.

Bomb-sniffing dolphins

It is unethical for the US navy to enlist marine mammals in its wars - dolphins would never voluntarily give up their freedom to knowingly participate. Like us, they want to be with their families and friends. These bottlenose dolphins are the seafaring equivalent of bomb-sniffing dogs and are used because they're far more effective at it than human divers.

The dolphins are usually fitted with cameras to transmit underwater scenes to their handlers to eliminate false alarms. When they find a mine, they report back to the boat and go to the “I've found something” rubber ball dangling from the front; the “nothing's out there” ball dangles from the back. Their handlers then decide whether to send the dolphin back to mark the mine with a small float so human divers can safely detonate the mine. The US Marine Mammal Program is budgeted at £7 million to £15 million annually.

Life is not a beach

However, there are more concerns as far as the navies and marine mammals go. More than a dozen beaked whales beached themselves in the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa in September 2002 following a NATO exercise that involved a cluster of warships and submarines. The Spanish Government cut the navy trials short at the request of the Canary Islands government after the whales were stranded. It raised fresh concerns that long-range “active sonar” systems, used to detect undersea objects at huge distances, destroyed whales' delicate natural navigation systems. The beaked whales, all from three separate species, were stranded along the coasts of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. Acoustic exercises were carried out at the time of the strandings; these occurred in the early morning hours and by dawn most of the animals were already beached. Eight cuvier's beaked whales were necropsied along with a Blainville's beaked whale and a Gervais' beaked whale. These animals showed signs that the sonar had indeed affected them and they are not the only stranded cetaceans to provide evidence of this. In early 2002, an extensive study by the US National Marine Fisheries Service determined that sonar was to blame for another mass stranding of whales during US navy exercises off the Bahamas in 2000. The study indicated that the navy's mid-frequency sonar system caused inner ear bleeding, disorientation and other injuries that drove the whales to beach themselves. Similar strandings occurred in the Canary Islands in 1991, and every year from 1985 to 1989. In all instances except 1986 and 1987, naval exercises were taking place at the same time as the strandings. Strandings that occurred in Britain also showed similar signs of sonar trauma and, therefore, further investigation is needed into the physical and behavioural effects on cetaceans exposed to sonar.

For a worldwide ban

The Marine Connection is running a battle over the impact of sonar systems on marine mammals. The new sonar system that the US navy would love to use worldwide, given the chance - but at present limited to certain areas - is known as Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar (SURTASS). It saturates the oceans with extremely loud, low frequency sound intended to detect submarines at great distances. Passive sonar systems, by contrast, listen for noise.

Many whales and dolphins depend on sound for their navigation and communication and all toothed cetaceans use echo-location to catch their food. The negative effects of high levels of underwater noise,for example noise from intensive marine traffic, on these species have been known for a long time. The Marine Connection charity will continue to work towards getting these sonar exercises banned, worldwide.

Topics: Animal Rights