For five years, 10 California sea lions and four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins have provided underwater security for Ohio-class submarines ported at Kings Bay as part of the Swimmer Interdiction Security System. Dolphins are trained to use their sophisticated sonar to detect unusual underwater activity and report it to their handlers. A dolphin is sent back to the area with a lighted beacon that it releases near the intruder to alert Navy security forces.
"Their primary mission is finding an intruder and marking the target," project manager Steve Hugueley said. "These guys are really good about using sonar to find targets. They work at it every day." Sea lions are trained to carry a special cuff in their mouths that they can quickly clamp around an intruder's leg. "It's like a handcuff; it can only get tighter," Hugueley said. The intruder is reeled in by base security by a rope attached to the cuff, which can only be removed with a special key.
"I think for bases who have these high-value assets, it's really a first line of defense for protection against underwater intruders," he said. Kings Bay is home to eight $2 billion Ohio-class submarines. Six of the boats carry ballistic nuclear missiles, while two were recently converted to carry cruise missiles.
While the work is serious, the trainers and marine mammals in the program interact much like their counterparts at a tourist attraction such as SeaWorld. The animals are rewarded with a fish when they perform a task properly. One of the dolphins spun in the water with excitement when a trainer offered him a fish. During free time, connecting doors to pens are often opened so the animals can socialize with each other, Hugueley said.
While trainers said teaching the animals is fun, the mission is serious. The marine mammal program, in existence since 1960, provided port security during the Vietnam War, protected the Third Fleet flagship overseeing Navy vessels that escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers in 1987 and performed port security in the Persian Gulf from 2003 to 2005. "It's the longest deployment elsewhere of any marine mammals, ever," said Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the Navy Marine Mammal Program. Though they are not native to the East Coast, environmental studies show sea lions have no adverse environmental impact at Kings Bay. The one concern before they arrived was how they would interact with manatees, but it appears the two species are indifferent to each other, Hugueley said.
It takes about 18 months to train the animals in San Diego, where the Navy's marine mammal program is based, Hugueley said. "They actually take a test to make sure they know all the procedures," he said. LaPuzza said 80 bottlenose dolphins and 28 sea lions are available to perform underwater security at locations across the world. Currently they are only working at Kings Bay, but will soon be working at a Navy base in Bangor, Wash. "We saw they were easily trainable and reliable," LaPuzza said. "These animals can do a lot of things. A whole bunch of them do object recovery and mine hunting." Luckily, the marine mammals have only trained and have never had to respond to a threat on base, Hugueley said.
It's unlikely the animals will simply swim away and never return, Hugueley said. It's so much easier for them to live in their floating enclosures and enjoy a summer diet of 13 to 15 pounds of fish a day and more than 20 pounds a day in the winter than to fend for themselves at sea, he said.
Samantha Vittum, one of the trainers, said both species are intelligent, but dolphins and sea lions learn differently. Each animal she works with has a distinct personality, and she compared training dolphins to cats and sea lions to dogs.
One dolphin named Nemo has been in the program about 30 years. During a recent training session, Nemo quickly responded to her commands to spin, roll over and allow her to rub his tummy and back. She trains dolphins using physical gestures to communicate while sea lions respond more to verbal commands.
"They're really smart, sometimes too smart," she said. "They just learn a little differently."