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Navy's plans to use dolphins in Puget Sound has activists hot under the collar (and knitting sweaters)

February 15, 2009 | 10:15 am

At the Point Loma Navy base, a bottle nose dolphin named

The Navy's plans to deploy bottle-nosed dolphins to protect its submarines in the Puget Sound have met with sharp criticism from animal activists, who say the waters in the Pacific Northwest inlet are too cold for dolphins.  And what's an activist without action?

A group called Knitting for Dolphins has an unusual method for drawing attention to its cause: knitting sweaters, hats and mittens for the dolphins.  The Navy has 78 of the animals, as well as 27 sea lions and a beluga whale -- all based in San Diego, where the water temperatures average 10 degrees higher than those of Puget Sound. 

"It's just a matter of being humane, or civilized, in acknowledging there's a reason why bottlenose dolphins, especially the warm-water Atlantic variety, do not exist in the water here. It's just too darned cold. And they don't have the physiology to adapt," dolphin biologist Toni Frohoff told our colleague Kim Murphy.

A federal judge denied the Navy's similar request for marine mammal use in the Puget Sound in 1989, but the Associated Press notes:

Since then, the Navy has taken the dolphins and sea lions to cold-water places like Alaska and Scandinavia to see how they cope.

"They did very well," [Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the Marine Mammal Program] said. If the animals are sent to Washington, the dolphins would be housed in heated enclosures and would patrol the bay only for periods of about two hours.

But the promise of heated holding pens don't reassure activists. 

A handler guides a dolphin to a halt during an exercise at Naval Base Point Loma Murphy reports on their objections:

In comments at a Thursday night hearing, Humane Society International argued that studies had shown that moving the animals in and out of heated holding pens could be traumatic and compromise the animals' immune systems.

The Humane Society and other opponents also have questioned whether dolphins can be relied on.

"I've been working with dolphins for over 20 years, both in captivity and in the wild. And most trainers who don't have an affiliation will readily admit that dolphins do not have as accurate a response rate to directions and signals as human divers. So I think it isn't just dangerous to dolphins, it's dangerous to people," Frohoff said.

The Navy has been training marine mammals for defense purposes since the Vietnam War era but hopes to replace its marine mammals with machines eventually.  "But the technology just isn't there yet," LaPuzza told the AP. "The value of the marine mammals is we've been doing this for 35 years, and we've ironed out all the kinks."

--Lindsay Barnett

Top photo: At the Point Loma Navy base, a bottle nose dolphin named Ten waits for a reward treat after jumping from a pool and onto this beaching tray. Once in the tray, the dolphin can be moved anywhere, such as to a speedboat for deployment in the ocean.  Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times.

Bottom photo: A handler guides a dolphin to a halt during an exercise at Naval Base Point Loma.  Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times.

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