Dolphins, sea lions used in anti-terror drills


The drills took place on both sides of the bay. In Oakland, agencies dealt with an imaginary toxic cloud from a ship. In San Francisco, it was a different scenario -- a terrorist planting a bomb beneath a pier, but instead of calling in the dogs, they called in the dolphins and the sea lions.

Had this been the real deal, we would not have been this close, nor would Mayor Gavin Newsom be observing from a San Francisco fire boat, or the Navy's media people be open and available for questions.

"Theoretically, we say, we are able to do this in 72 hours for a real emergency," said Navy spokesman Tom LaPuzza.

In a world where terrorism has pretty much replaced nuclear annihilation as the threat du jour, this was a day of drills across California. In San Francisco Bay, the U.S. Navy used trained sea lions and dolphins to find a make-believe mine and saboteur beneath a pier near AT&T Park.

"We zip the sea lion out the boat and the sea lion jumps in the water and verifies -- does an unequivocal discrimination that that is a swimmer and nothing else – comes back, gets the clamp, goes down, clamps it on, jumps back in the boat, gets out, they hand the line off to the other guys with the weapons, and that's it," said Navy biosciences manager Mike Rothe.

But it was hardly simple, according to Rothe. The dolphins and seals came up from San Diego, where the Navy has trained and used them for security and bomb detection since the Vietnam era.

Dolphins have exceptionally sensitive, high frequency broadband sonar. They do the long-range work. Then sea lions move in close. Their vision is five times better underwater than humans. Training takes about four years per animal, just in preparation.

"We teach them to play games," said Rothe. "That's what it's all about."

But in fairness, the $20 million a year program has critics, as well. In Berkeley, Mark Berman of Earth Island regards such training as immoral, unnatural, and cruel.

"Other species are not to be fighting the wars of humans, period," or performing drills, he said.

"The whole idea is not to play gotcha, the whole idea is to have problems and learn from those problems and fix them," said Newsom.

To that end, Tuesday's drill identified some non-working emergency cell phone numbers.

"We're going to update the notification list," said Asst. Chief Kevin Cashman.

Better to find out now than during the real thing. These drills will continue for two more days. The responders have no idea what will come next. That's the point, to find the flaws and then fix them.

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