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The dolphin platoon is Navy's most effective mine-finding team
CAMP PATRIOT, Kuwait -- Meticulously combing their way through the murky waters of Iraq's Umm Qasr port is the U.S. Navy's most sophisticated mine-detection team -- the dolphin platoon.
For the past week, a crew of Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins, specially trained to spot lethal mines littering the sea floor, have been scouring the country's only deep-water port to allow humanitarian aid to be shipped in.
"They are the best," said their trainer, Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Dee Jennings. "I couldn't see any other way to do it. It would take years for us to clear what they can do in weeks."
Better than man-made
The dolphins' "echo location" -- sonar more effective than anything man has made -- makes them unsurpassed at mine detection. Working together with a team of 50 divers and sophisticated underwater equipment, they have been meticulously scouring the bottom of the murky port for anything suspicious.
"Their search rate is incredibly fast. Detection is 100 percent. They can find anything," Jennings said.
Taught to recognize various types of mines, they alert their handlers when they spot something man-made and are given markers to place near it. Navy divers follow up.
So far, they have turned up no mines in the port itself, though suspected mines have been discovered farther out along the 50-mile Khor Abdallah channel.
Though they've been trained in mine-hunting for years, this is the first time dolphins have been used in a combat environment.
The mammal platoon was flown out from Southern California in early March on massive C-5 transports, making the 28-hour flight in 20-foot pools.
Five of them have been working in Umm Qasr port for a week now and are housed in specially converted warehouses. The remaining four continue their training in Kuwait before rotation to Iraq.
Splashing around in holding pens Wednesday, the four -- Kahili, Kona, Punani, and Jefe -- awaited feeding time. The meal of the day -- fish -- was eagerly gobbled up.
Positive reinforcement -- food, frequent rubs, and verbal encouragement -- is the training technique, said Jennings, who has worked with the team for six years.
"They're like 4- to 7-year-olds. You can't force them to do anything they don't want to do. Once you have a rapport with them, they'll do what you ask," said Jennings, 33, from Sheffield, Texas.
The mine-hunting is hard work but these troops get celebrity treatment, he said.
Daily meals of fresh seafood -- restaurant-grade mackerel, capelins, smelt, and squid -- are flown in from around the world. The dolphins travel with their own staff of veterinarians, getting daily medical checkups.
"They are pampered unbelievably," said Jennings, affectionately patting Kahili. The 34-year-old dolphin leaped out of the water, its fin lathered with white sun-block.
Most of the dolphins were caught in the Gulf of Mexico during the 1970s, he said. In captivity, they live about 40 years -- twice as long as their counterparts in the wild. Training is intensive and lasts eight to 10 years.
The Navy started using marine mammals in the early 1960s, and some were used in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. In the late 1980s, six Navy dolphins patrolled the Bahrain harbor to protect U.S. ships from enemy divers and mines. They also escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers through dangerous waters.
In the decades of using dolphins, there has never been a casualty, Jennings said. That's largely because the animals don't touch the pressure-sensitive underwater bombs.
This platoon of dolphins has adapted well -- the Persian Gulf is similar to their natural habitat.
In fact, several have taken the liberty of exploring their new waters for days at a time. But reports of AWOL dolphins have been overblown, Jennings said. They are free to roam -- and one dolphin in Umm Qasr, Tacoma, was gone for about 48 hours.
"They take day trips. They're not missing. We do have tracking devices on them but we don't worry about it. They always come home," he said.