San Francisco officials were introduced today to some unlikely allies in the fight against terror: dolphins and sea lions.
For decades, the Navy has capitalized on the animals’ superior sensory skills and diving abilities by using them to locate underwater mines and hostile divers.
But it wasn’t until today that the Navy Marine Mammal Program made its way to San Francisco for a demonstration and training exercise.
The showcase was part of San Francisco’s participation in Golden Guardian, an annual homeland security and disaster preparedness exercise that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger started in 2004. This year’s drill tested local responses to terrorist attacks on ports.
In the first of two marine mammal demonstrations today, a sea lion located a fake mine that had been tied to a San Francisco Pier piling.
“This is a remarkable tool,” Mayor Gavin Newsom said after the demonstration.
Navy personnel released the sea lion near the dock, and after a few dives it found the mine. The sea lion then swam back to the boat and hit a circular disk with its nose to indicate the mine had been found. Crew members outfitted the sea lion with a marker on a string, which the sea lion attached to the device.
Sea lions identify the explosives using sight and sound, Navy Marine Mammal spokesman Tom LaPuzza said. They can see in almost total darkness and have vision that is five times better than that of humans.
Sea lions also have excellent directional hearing, meaning they can find divers and moving objects based on the sound they make, LaPuzza said.
Dolphins are also trained to find mines using echolocation, and once a mine has been located, divers with the Navy’s explosive ordinance team would normally recover it.
Echolocation is a navigation technique in which the animal lets out a call and uses the echo to identify objects and their locations. Dolphins’ biosonar is more accurate than any manmade sonar devices, according to the Marine Mammal Program.
At today’s event, the team demonstrated how dolphins can also find suspects trying to plant objects underwater. They released a dolphin several hundred meters away from two divers who were swimming near the pier as if they were going to plant an explosive.
Within a few minutes, the dolphin had located the divers and returned to the boat to alert crew members of the find.
The divers then gave the dolphin a buoy, which it used to mark the general location of the divers. The crew steered the boat to the general vicinity and released a sea lion equipped with ankle cuffs tied to a string.
The dolphins and sea lions are trained to cuff the suspects, who officials try to keep alive so they can be mined for intelligence information. Usually the swimmers have been found and cuffed before they know what’s happening, particularly in murky water, according to the Navy.
Once the suspects have been cuffed, local police would normally retrieve them from the water and arrest them.
The marine mammals live and train in San Diego and could be deployed to San Francisco within 72 hours, LaPuzza said. They were first used in combat in March 2003, when they helped disarm more than 100 mines planted in an Iraqi port.
The dolphins and sea lions are trained to locate devices that are typically planted to destroy ships, which means the mines are only detonated by massive weight and pressure. They are designed so waves and curious animals don’t trigger an explosion, which is why the dolphins and sea lions can safely tag them.
LaPuzza said the animals are trained with the same successive approximation technique a police dog trainer would use. They are taught a series of smaller steps and sequences, and they are given positive reinforcement along the way.
“We build up to mine hunting,” LaPuzza said.
Newsom said the marine mammal demonstration was only part of San Francisco’s Golden Guardian response. Officials also tested internal communications systems.
He said the Golden Guardian event was important because although anti-terrorism efforts tend to be East Coast-centric, he has received intelligence of San Francisco being targeted over the years.
“I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but there’s nothing to stop a New York City scenario except vigilance and taking the threat (of terrorism) seriously,” he said.
San Francisco Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman also said he appreciated the Golden Guardian exercises because they gave various departments an opportunity to build relationships.
“Agencies tend to be insular,” he said. “But we’ll all need to work together if there’s a disaster.”