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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 March, 2003, 15:22 GMT
Dolphins clear mines the natural way
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Dolphins have been pressed into service in the coalition war effort in the Gulf.

Leaping dolphin   AP-US Navy
The dolphins are basically like underwater sniffer dogs
Major Andy Hopkinson

Two animals trained by the US Navy are helping to clear mines from the waters around the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

The coalition says the dolphins will help to make the port safe for aid cargoes and for other vessels.

The Navy says they are well cared for, and face little danger.

The dolphins are from the US Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit Three (Eodmu 3), based in Coronado, California.

Nine have been flown to the Gulf, with a number of trained sea lions from the Navy's Mammal Maritime Unit in San Diego.

Two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, called Tacoma and Makai, were taken by helicopter to Umm Qasr in fleece-lined slings, partially submerged in water tanks.

Makai has been at Eodmu 3 for 20 years, and Tacoma is described as one of the unit's most vocal animals. This is the first time any of Eodmu 3's animals have been used for mine clearance.

Helping the troops

They are trained not to touch any mines they find, but to mark them with floats. The Navy says they face no "significant" risk.

It says it uses dolphins because their biological sonar is far superior to human systems for detecting objects in the water and on the sea bed.

Dolphin on boat   AFP
Getting used to the Gulf
Sea lions are chosen for their very sensitive underwater hearing, and their ability to see in low light.

Major Andy Hopkinson, of the UK's Royal Logistic Corps, said: "The dolphins are basically like underwater sniffer dogs.

"The old port area was mined extensively during the Iran-Iraq war, and there's a fear that some of them may have sunk deep into the silt.

"When we are bringing humanitarian aid ships in, or any vessels for that matter, we need to be 100% sure the berths and channels are safe."

He said the dolphins were "pampered far better" than any champion from Crufts dog show would ever be.

No retirement prospects

Eodmu 3's website says: "The use of these animals' natural echolocation systems to locate objects in the water has proven effective and efficient at meeting many fleet requirements.

"The Navy will continue to use these systems as long as they are more effective than existing hardware."

The Navy has about 40 animals altogether, some trained to find mines, some to home in on objects like test torpedoes with acoustic pingers.

Another group specialises in detecting swimmers, and is used for protecting ships and harbours.

Tom Lapuzza of the US navy
"The dolphins have an incredibly good biological sonar system"

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