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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sea Lions, the new S.E.A.L.s

Okay this article is now five months old, but I still find it interesting.  I've known of the US Navy using dolphins and sea lions for search and rescue as well as find and eliminate mines, but this gives a good bit of detail.  Here are some of the more interesting (to me) parts of the article:

Just as dogs can detect bombs with their exceptional sense of smell, dolphins can locate objects in the water with their natural sonar, useful where hardware sonar performs poorly due to acoustic conditions.
Dolphins are therefore deployed on “swimmer defense,” meaning they detect enemy divers, swimmers and swimmer delivery vehicles. 
It can take a sea lion less than a minute to locate a mine embedded in a pier. When detected, it reports back and the Navy divers are deployed for further action.
Ordinarily, recovering unarmed test ordnance is complex and dangerous: Human divers must contend with poor visibility, currents and limited windows of time. They also require surface support, a recompression chamber and medical personnel.
But it takes just one sea lion, two handlers and a simple rubber boat to conduct the same recovery to a depth of 1,000 feet, well beyond the standard 650 feet.
Not only can they locate and recognize different shapes of mines, they have been trained to attach a leg cuff -- the sea version of handcuffs -- around a diver’s thigh. The cuffs are attached to a line so their handlers can reel in a saboteur for questioning.
Sea lions patrol in a special video-equipped harness that gives sailors a live, real-time window on underwater threats. Both dolphins and sea lions move so much more quickly and accurately in water than humans that the animals are typically in and out without the bad guys knowing they were there.

I find such training and tasks fascinating.  Animals assisting humans has become more common over time, to where we don't see anything unusual about seeing-eye dogs.  I've seen discussions on using monkeys to help people in wheelchairs and dogs who can detect a seizure before it happens.  All of these instances illustrate how close the human-animal bond can be.  Instead of humans "owning" or "using" animals, we are coming to rely on them more and see them as partners rather than tools

And that's a good thing.