Sea lions, dolphins prepare for potential Navy deployment

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A trained California sea lion practices attaching a clamp to a simulated mine on a dock in San Diego. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

SAN DIEGO – For a moment, the mammal and the machine are side by side on a Navy dock here.

The dolphin and the drone — and their respective handlers — will spend the morning training for a possible order to deploy to the Persian Gulf or some other international trouble spot to detect underwater mines, or maybe to guard a port against a terrorist threat, Los Angeles Times reported.

The mammal is Puanani, a bottlenose dolphin, a sleek 7 feet, 10 inches long and 427 pounds. The machine is an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle, or UUV, Kingfish version, 11 feet long, 600 pounds.

Puanani was born in the Gulf of Mexico and received initial training from the Navy in Hawaii. The cigar-shaped UUV was built by Hydroid, Inc., a Massachusetts-based defense contractor.

Both are assigned to a mission that Navy officials say is increasingly critical: maintaining “underwater dominance” and the ability to thwart attacks aimed at the home front or at U.S. and allied ships in foreign locations. Among potential targets, the Navy’s top admiral warns, is the port at Long Beach.

The U.S. has submarines, advanced sonar aboard surface ships and high-tech scanning capability aboard aircraft — as well as listening devices beneath the waves and an untold number of technological and intelligence-gathering assets that are classified.

In San Diego, with a budget of $28 million a year, the Navy has 90 dolphins and 50 California sea lions in a program run by the Space and Naval Warfare System Pacific. Nearly every day the animals train in San Diego Bay or in the ocean beyond Point Loma. There are also several UUVs.

The dolphins and the sea lions, using their keen eyesight and “biological sonar,” are expert at finding mines.

The sea lions are also trained to detect any swimmer who is in a restricted area. The animal clamps a “bite plate” on the swimmer’s leg and takes the attached tether back to his handler.

That’s the exercise that veteran trainer Chris Harris is conducting with Joe, a sea lion who has made multiple deployments including to the Persian Gulf.

Harris signals Joe to begin his dive. Within a minute, Joe has surfaced, followed by a Navy diver playing the part of a would-be terrorist. The diver gives a thumbs up. Joe has done his job.

Harris gives Joe an enthusiastic attaboy, and tosses a fish into his mouth. “He’s robust and he’s reliable,” Harris said.

Puanani was sent to the Persian Gulf during the invasion of Iraq. “She is deployable anytime, anywhere,” said Mark Patefield, Puanani’s lead trainer. “All we need is the word ‘go.’ ”

Sea lions are amphibious and can essentially hop into a small boat. The dolphins are lifted in a sling. On a transport plane or ship, the sea lions are kept in specially designed enclosures that are cool and wet. The dolphins travel in fleece-lined stretchers suspended in fiberglass containers filled with water.

Read more of Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry’s story.