Once again, the drums of war are beginning to sound. Iran threatens to close the Persian Gulf, a major shipping lane for oil tankers, at the Straits of Hormuz. The U.S. declares such a move to be totally unacceptable – a “red line”. There are rumors that Iran may mine the waterway. What to do now?
Answer: Send in the dolphins.
In an interview with NPR, Admiral Tim Keating, who commanded the U.S. 5th Fleet during the run-up to the Iraq War, said, “We’ve got dolphins.” He didn’t want to say much more, but the conversation went thus:
KEATING: They are astounding in their ability to detect underwater objects.
NPR’s TOM BOWMAN: Dolphins were sent to the Persian Gulf as part of the American invasion force in Iraq.
KEATING: I’d rather not talk about whether we used them or not. They were present in theater.
BOWMAN: But you can’t say whether you used them or not.
KEATING: I’d rather not.
The Atlantic Wire discusses this, quoting several other sources:
“Dolphins, which possess sonar so keen they can discern a quarter from a dime when blindfolded and spot a 3-inch metal sphere from 370 feet away, are invaluable minesweepers,” reported The San Francisco Chronicle.
In 2010, the Seattle Times reported that the Navy has 80 bottlenose dolphins in the San Diego Bay alone. They are taught to hunt for mines and drop acoustic transponders nearby.
According to a report in 2003, the dolphins only detect the mines. Destroying them is left up to the Navy’s human divers. Still, the mammals are large enough to detonate a live mine, a prospect that doesn’t delight animal rights groups.
A spokesman for the military’s Space & Naval Warfare Systems Center is quoted as saying that dolphins are naturally reliable and trustworthy animals who seem to enjoy pleasing their human handlers.
It’s all made to sound quite cute and friendly. But the reality is anything but. For starters, at least three dolphins were killed off the coast of San Diego in March, 2010, in what the Navy justified as a “mission critical” operation.
Dolphins aren’t just “invaluable minesweepers”; they are supremely intelligent nonhuman animals with their own lives and their own families. They’re not weapons to be taken off the shelf and trained to be used in our endless human squabbles.
Dolphin expert Dr. Lori Marino describes how military dolphin handlers ensure that the dolphins do what they’re asked and keep coming back:
First, if the dolphins were born in captivity or have been in captivity for a very long time then they are probably afraid of what lies out there in the big unknown ocean.
Second, the navy handlers typically do not bring all of the dolphins out on a mission. The dolphins who go out know that their children or family or friends are still back in captivity. Their priority is to get back to their social group and they would not abandon them. We see this over and over again. Many cetaceans have a level of social togetherness that is unrivaled and that we humans don’t fully understand.
The biggest thing we could learn from dolphins as regards fighting wars is how, thousands of years before human civilization was ever dreamed of, these highly intelligent, social animals learned how to resolve their own differences without going to war with each other.
For more about the use of dolphins in war, go here.