2 dolphins star in SE military drill

Posted: Monday, March 06, 2000

SITKA - A pair of bottlenose dolphins from San Diego will be among those taking part in the Northern Edge 2000 military exercise, which moves to Southeast this week for naval training.

Fathom and Splash, two female dolphins from the Navy's marine mammal program in San Diego, were flown north in a C-17 transport plane with an entourage large enough to rival that of a rock star.

They're staying in a pool at Mount Edgecumbe High School during their time in Sitka.

The dolphins are used by the military to locate underwater mines, lost swimmers and people missing in boating accidents. Dolphins are particularly useful because they swim fast, dive well, and use sonar, said Dr. Sam Ridgway, an internationally recognized expert on dolphins who has been with the program since shortly after its inception.

``Obviously none of those skills would matter if they weren't also highly trainable and cooperative animals,'' Ridgway said.

Ridgway is a neurobiologist whose interest in dolphins extends to their hearing and neuroresponses for non-military applications.

The Navy was interested in dolphins for their hydrodynamics - how they moved through the water - as a means to improve torpedo, ship and submarine designs. But with the discovery of dolphin sonar came the recognition that the animals could be put to better use.

Because Sitka-area waters are colder than the sea in the animals' normal range, they are being slowly acclimated to local conditions by limited exposure.

Sitka's part of the Northern Edge exercise is a scenario focuses on securing and defending a port, evacuating non-military personnel and protecting the USS Comstock, a California-based amphibious warfare platform.

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