On October 5, six specially-trained bottlenose dolphins and their handlers from the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program flew to Tivat, Montenegro from their base in San Diego, California as part of Operation Dolphin 2012. This operation was initiated to helped Montenegro pinpoint the location of unexploded bombs, mines, and other munitions that were fired, dropped, and dumped in its coastal waters.
Thanks to the coordination of the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica, Montenegro, and with a little help from the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the dolphin teams participated in a multinational military operation to search for submerged unexploded munitions from past conflicts in the Bay of Kotor. The dolphin teams, along with the U.S. Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit-1 based in Point Loma, California, also trained Montenegrin Navy divers to conduct similar operations. Military divers from Slovenia and Croatia observed operations as well.
Throughout the deployment, Marine Mammal veterinary personnel were on hand to ensure the comfort, safety, and welfare of the marine mammals.
The dolphins flew to Montenegro aboard a C-17 Globemaster III from the 729th Airlift Squadron and supported by the 336th Air Refueling Squadron, both based at March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, California. U.S. Embassy Podgorica arranged for the dolphins to be transferred to the bay upon arrival. The large amount of equipment necessary for this deployment was transported by the U.S. Navy's Fleet Logistics Support Squadrons 64 and 53.
The dolphins and their human partners conducted search operations for unexploded ordnance in the bay, and trained Montenegrin Navy divers to conduct similar operations in a simulated United Nations peacekeeping mission. The handlers gave the dolphins markers, which the dolphins took underwater as they searched for potentially hazardous items. When the dolphins thought they had found an explosive item, they dropped the marker by it, and swam back to their handlers. The dolphins then exited the area of operations and human divers dove down to the markers to photograph the items of concern for later identification.
Why dolphins? Their biological sonar, a.k.a. echolocation, is far more effective than the most advanced sonar technology currently available. The U.S. Navy trains dolphins for two to three years before they begin work on underwater security projects. Navy dolphins typically live much longer than their counterparts in the wild, receive round-the-clock medical and dental care, and are fed a diet of fresh fish. The dolphins bond with and trust their handler, which allows them to operate in open water without tethers. To date, no Navy marine mammal has been a casualty in any peacetime exercise or during a conflict.
During Dolphin 2012, the U.S. and Montenegrin teams located a variety of types of potentially-hazardous munitions. The suspect items found in the Bay of Kotor range in age, some possibly dating back to World War I. The dolphins searched several large areas within and around the bay, and accomplished in a short timeframe what would have taken human diving teams much longer to complete.
Throughout the deployment, onlookers crowded the jetties and piers along the bay to catch a glimpse of the dolphins in action. The operation also hosted several groups of schoolchildren to teach them about how dolphins can be useful partners in efforts to rehabilitate areas contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance.
Upon completion, the Montenegrin divers were recognized in a graduation ceremony at which U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Sue K. Brown donated diving equipment to Montenegro, courtesy of the U.S. European Command's Humanitarian Mine Action Program. Grids with the precise locations of hazardous items will be provided to the government of Montenegro. With this information, equipment and training, Montenegro will be better able to continue neutralization of underwater explosive hazards to ensure that its beautiful waters may continue to be used safely by fishermen, recreational boaters and divers, cruise ships and freighters.
This operation was a team effort, and a great example of ongoing State Department/Defense Department cooperation. For the State Department, U.S. Embassy in Podgorica, Montenegro, coordinated the deployment, and the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs provided funds for some logistical costs of the deployment. For the Defense Department, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. European Command Humanitarian Mine Action Program, and the U.S Department of Defense's Humanitarian Mine Action Program were instrumental in the deployment. All of this was accomplished with the kind cooperation of the Montenegrin Ministry of Defense. This was the first time that the Marine Mammal Program partnered with the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and the Department of Defense Humanitarian Mine Action program simultaneously. The State Department and Defense Department plan to employ this collaborative approach in the future to help countries affected by unexploded mines, bombs, and other munitions.