April 11, 2003
By David Helvarg
My name’s Flipper O’Reilly but you may know me as K-Dog, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin attached to Commander Task Unit 55.4.3. My picture’s been in all the papers.
Not to sound too gung-ho, but when they deployed us from our pens in San Diego and said we were green-lighted for Iraq, we were as ready as anyone to shake our flukes.
Anyway we’re helping clear mines from the waters off Umm Qasr to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aide, and while I’m not strictly speaking a human that still sounds like the sort of thing no one could object to, right?
The Navy claims ours is the first combat deployment of mine-detecting dolphins, which is technically true. I did have an aunt in Vietnam who planted limpet mines in Haiphong harbor, but planting and detecting mines are totally different gigs, right?
Over the course of its 43-year marine mammal program the Navy’s trained me and my predecessors to carry out a number of jobs. These have ranged from mine warfare activity to underwater recovery of ordinance, planting bugs on Soviet ships and subs during the Cold War, and doing swimmer defense in the Persian Gulf back in ’87-’88. Of course, we love our work, which is really like a game to us, plus they feed us restaurant quality food, although personally I prefer wild fish to factory farmed.
Psst. Listen: while SEAL-boy’s playing with that motor, you ever hear of our “wet work?” of “swimmer nullification?” Yeah, in Vietnam we used needles attached to CO2 cartridges to “nullify” over 30 enemy divers in Cam Ranh Bay, also a couple of Americans who strayed into restricted waters. Later in the war we carried out live captures, which is the only thing the Navy admits to. Today both dolphins and sea lions have specialized snout gear that includes a .45 caliber bang-stick for killing enemy swimmers.
Of course that’s black ops stuff. The Navy still denies weaponizing us despite all the ex-trainers and Navy guys who’ve talked to reporters like you. They got some sea lions over in Bahrain right now who are showing off how they can cuff divers by the legs with a rope attachment so they can be hauled out of the water backwards.
During the Cold War the Russians had their own dolphin program, including anti-dolphin dolphins that were supposed to kill us if we came into contact with them. But after the fall of the Soviet Union they retired their dolphins and you know what they’re doing now? Giving rides to autistic and handicapped kids in the Black Sea. It’s some kind of therapy thing.
You know what I’ve been doing to help the world recently? Being exposed to the Navy’s low-frequency active sonar in a controlled experiment to see if it affected me. Bottom line, I had some temporary hearing loss. I’m O.K. now, thanks, better than those dead whales in the Bahamas. So you know what the Navy plans to do in response to its findings? Get Congress to give them exemptions from the Marine Mammal Protection Act so they can claim incidental “takes” of marine mammals like me. That’s their weasel term for killing noncombatant cetaceans. I swear it’s enough to make a hagfish gag. You give your life to the service and they just turn their dorsal side to you.
I also don’t want to keep carping, but you know what really rubs me the wrong way? The Pentagon says America has an all-volunteer military. Hell, I don’t recall any recruiting pitch before they gill-netted me out of the Gulf of Mississippi.
There was talk of phasing out our program at the end of the Cold War but it turned out to be just that: talk. Today the Navy has the largest contingent of captive marine mammals in the world, 75 dolphins, 20 sea lions and two beluga whales that are on R&R right now doing a breeding gig at Seaworld. Talk about your sweet deployment. Still, over 40 dolphins, 20 sea lions and four whales have died on active duty since 1972 and many more in the program’s earlier years before mortality reporting was required under the Marine Mammal Act.
I’m not denying I’m good at my job hunting mines. We’ve found a bunch. But you know, so are a new generation of AUVs, autonomous underwater vehicles, or robot subs. The Navy says they need a full range of options but I don’t see the Air Force supplementing their predator drones with camera-toting bald eagles, or the army employing tigers to guard their tanks. Still the Navy plans to hang on to us for what they call “the foreseeable future.” I mean I hate to say this, but this isn’ really our war. This is a human thing. So while I keep my fixed grin for the man, inside I keep wondering, when does our tour of duty end?