We saw our first dolphin in the garage.
Bunsen was lying belly-down on a tarp, where trainers stroked his flesh to keep him calm. The 11-year-old bottlenose dolphin had diarrhea, and physical exams hadn’t been able to detect the cause. So Bunsen the dolphin was getting an ultrasound.
One veterinarian watched on a beeping screen as another scanned Bunsen’s abdomen. A trainer cooed and slipped the cetacean a mackerel while keeping him moist with squirts from a plastic water bottle.
But this wasn’t just some ordinary carport. And Bunsen is no ordinary sea creature. This was the alcove of a military operating theater. And Bunsen is a foot soldier in the Pentagon’s global War on Terror.
We’d come to this military outpost in San Diego because this is where the U.S. Navy trains marine mammals to stop invaders. Here, every day, beneath the California sun, dolphins named Bunsen, Slooper, Shasta, Maddie, Crockett, Bugs and Bertha learn to sweep for hidden mines or bump and tag divers pretending to be underwater guerrillas. Fat-whiskered sea lions practice cuffing intruding swimmers with giant leg traps.
Some time this year — the Navy won’t say when — up to 20 of these creatures will make their debut in Puget Sound. They’ll patrol the waters of Hood Canal, on the lookout for agents of al-Qaida or any other enemy who might try infiltrating the Trident Submarine Base at Bangor.
We wanted to understand how it is in 2010 that Flipper still plays so significant a role in the art of war.
This mission prompts such discomfort in the Northwest that it took the Navy two tries to bring its cetaceans north. (Similar patrols at a base in Georgia began without objection in 2006.) The irony seemed difficult to shake. Those are nuclear warheads housed at Bangor, the most sophisticated and destructive devices in human history. And our first line of defense is an animal we applaud for learning to leap through hoops at theme parks?