Sea lions being used to guard American ships in Persian Gulf

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Move over Navy SEALs: There's a new sea creature in town.

Make way for Zachary, the 19-year-old sea lion, one of the U.S. Navy's new secret weapons in any war against Iraq.

Brought to the Persian Gulf to swim alongside naval vessels and key facilities in this kingdom, Zachary and the other whiskered sea mammals will guard against attack, providing early warning of enemy saboteurs.

"If there is somebody down there who shouldn't be there, the sea lions will find them," said Lt. J.G. Josh Frey, a spokesman for the Navy's 5th Fleet.

The need for the stealthy sea lion was highlighted after the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole. The bombing, blamed on al-Qaida, occurred when a seemingly harmless dinghy eased up to the destroyer and blew a hole in its hull, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39.

A sea lion patrol, had it been there, might not have been able to detect the Cole attackers because they were above the surface, but the bombing demonstrated the vulnerability of navy ships to small-scale assault.

The U.S. military has used intelligent sea creatures for three decades, including dolphins that patrolled Persian Gulf waters during the late 1980s. But it is the first time sea lions are being used in an operation.

'A lot more agile'

The Navy chose the mammals for their ability to see in low light, directional underwater hearing, and their capacity for repeated deep dives to up to 650 feet.

"They are a lot more agile in tight places in the water than dolphins," said Brenda Bryan, a civilian who is the head trainer in Bahrain.

Turns out, the sea lions have media savvy too. On a recent day in Bahrain harbor, Zachary the sea lion showed off for the cameras, jumping in and out of a dingy and frolicking in the water.

A handler whacked the side of the inflatable boat with a stick, and with a quick thrust of his powerful flippers Zachary easily lifted his 385 pounds out of the water and into the bow.

Water glistening darkly on his thick hairy coat, Zachary greedily accepted a fish treat for his efforts.

The sea lions will go looking for threatening swimmers, divers or small outboard-powered inflatable boats.

If they find one, the sea lion will come to surface to raise the alarm, Frey said. The handlers can then give the sea lion a clamp attached to a line that the animal can fix to the suspect's leg, marking him with a surface buoy and letting troops on the surface haul him in like a fish.

For now, the sea lions are spending their days getting accustomed to the warm waters of the Gulf.

"They have adapted really quickly," Bryan said.

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