Dolphins, sea lions going on guard at Bangor base

Dolphins, sea lions going on guard at Bangor base
In this 2003 Navy file photo, Zak, a 375-pound sea lion, shows his teeth during one a training swim. Zak has been trained to locate swimmers near piers, ships, and other objects in the water considered suspicious.
BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) - The Navy is keeping quiet about the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions that will guard Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor's shoreline, except to say they'll arrive sometime this year.

The dolphins and sea lions are the stars of a new swimmer interdiction security system, but like nuclear warheads, the Navy will neither confirm nor deny their presence.

"Because it's a security system, we are not going to discuss when or if the animals are there," said Tom LaPuzza, spokesman for the Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. He added, however, that, "You can go by there in your boat and see them and know they are there."

They're evidently not there now because their homes haven't been built, LaPuzza said. Construction can't begin until the fish window closes in July.

LaPuzza doesn't know yet how many animals will be heading north. There will be a total of no more than 20, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the program.

Four floating enclosures, 30 feet long by 30 feet wide, will each house up to four dolphins. Their water temperature will be kept at a minimum of 52 degrees.

The sea lions will have three enclosures of the same size, each of which can accommodate up to six of animals, according to the FEIS. The marine mammals' waste will go into the base's wastewater treatment system instead of into Hood Canal.

A maximum of 37 people will work with the animals, depending on how many of them wind up here, according to the FEIS. The staff will include a few Navy civilians and the rest will be contract employees, LaPuzza said.

The dolphins and sea lions are ready and waiting. They've been selected and trained, and will continue to sharpen their skills daily.

"They're ready to go momentarily, whenever we decide they need to be there," LaPuzza said.

It had been stated in November that the marine mammals will only work at night, but that was inaccurate, LaPuzza said.

"They'll be patrolling when they're patrolling," he said.

Confirming or denying whether marine mammals are at Bangor, how many are here or when they're working compromises their deterrence value, LaPuzza said. It's no secret that they've been patrolling the Navy's other Trident submarine base at Kings Bay, Ga., for years.

"Everybody knows they're there, so you can't deny they're there," LaPuzza said.

In November, after a 3 1/2-year environmental process, marine mammals were chosen from five options to stop swimmers and divers from infiltrating Bangor via Hood Canal. The base is home to eight of the Navy's 14 ballistic-missile submarines, two of its four cruise-missile subs and one fast-attack sub. The other swimmer interdiction choices were sea lions only, combat swimmers, remotely operated vehicles and doing nothing.

When the dolphins, accompanied by handlers in small power boats, find an intruder, they'll swim back to the boat and alert the handler, who will place a strobe light on a dolphin's nose. It will race back and bump the intruder's back, knocking the light off. The light will float to the surface, marking the spot. The dolphin will swim back to the boat, join the handler, and they'll clear out as security guards speed to the strobe to subdue the intruder.

Sea lions can carry in their mouths special cuffs attached to long ropes. If they find a suspicious swimmer, they can clamp the cuff around the person's leg. The intruder can then be reeled in.

The dolphins' sonar is better than any that man has made and they're best for moving quickly in open water. Sea lions can see and hear better underwater and are better for shallower work around piers.

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Information from: Kitsap Sun