Dolphins and Sea Lions Join the Navy

Navy SEALs may be the most rigorously trained men and women of the U.S. military, but a couple of other mammals also harbor stealthy underwater skills—with no need to wear a wetsuit.

Bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions (a close cousin of real seals) will soon be defending Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington, reports the Kitsap Sun. The new enlists are undergoing special training in San Diego to locate underwater mines and identify intruding swimmers or divers. When they report north for active duty in 2010, the sea lions will even be prepared to cuff the leg of a presumed terrorist so they can be reeled in by human handlers.

What makes these creatures so uniquely suited for the job? In addition to dolphins' well-known intelligence and agility, they also evolved rapid processing of sounds—about three times that of humans. And even the fastest SEALs can't match their speed: bottlenose dolphins swim at rates of up to 20 mph (California sea lions can break 12 mph), while rarely having to worry about getting "the bends." If a human diver returns to the surface too quickly, on the other hand, life-threatening gas bubbles can form in the muscles and blood.

There's been ample opposition to using the finned force. Some feared the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest would be too much for dolphins accustomed to warmer temperatures; others worried the waste of the mammals would foul shellfish beds. But after a couple years of detailed environmental impact assessments, and a few tweaks to the plans, the Navy's "swimmer interdiction security system" was finally cleared.

Of course, the SEALs need not fear pink slips anytime soon. Their blubber-covered counterparts are simply supplemental—motivated by increased terrorist threats over the last decade. Human's ability to move from water to land, and operate weapons with opposable thumbs, continues to offer decent job security.

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