Some time this year up to 20 marine mammals will make their debut in Puget Sound, patrolling 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.

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photographed by Steve Ringman

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.

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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?

But Bunsen and his colleagues had a lesson to impart, one it seems we humans never stop needing to relearn: Technology often can’t beat nature’s wonders — especially not after 50 million years of evolution.

MOST OF THE Navy’s 80 bottlenose dolphins and 30 California sea lions work near the mouth of San Diego Bay, along a pretty stretch of peninsula ringed by military guards and gates. For years the U.S. government kept its marine-mammal program classified. These days the basics of what happens here aren’t secret (though the military remains tight-lipped about many details). So on a sunny summer morning, after vets rolled a clicking and squeaking Bunsen to check his kidneys, civilian military escorts walked us to the water. There, training supervisor Chris Harris watched his crack teams of guard-animals prepare for practice.

They didn’t look particularly ferocious. The Navy once collected dolphins in the wild but now breeds its charges in captivity, and the teaching of new recruits begins within a few weeks of life. On this day, the youngsters leapt and swam inside a network of docks and pens like toddlers tumbling on a playground. Nearby, their human counterparts readied boats to ferry them to sea.

The Navy’s methods aren’t anything special: You can’t teach a Labrador puppy to catch and return a Frisbee until after it learns to sit and stay on command. Likewise, with dolphins “we break down every movement to its individual components,” Harris says. To prepare even a quick learner like Bunsen to signal when it spots an object on the sea floor, trainers first use underwater whistles and rewards to praise him each time he swims anywhere near it. Those rewards might be squid or fish or cheerful banter and soothing pats. Each marine mammal works with the same human trainer, who painstakingly bumps up the complexity of each task until the dolphins can perform sophisticated maneuvers. It can take three to six years of working five days a week for a single animal to ignore inevitable distractions and get it right every single time.

Some dolphins are taught to hunt for mines and carefully drop acoustic transponders nearby. Those headed for Puget Sound will patrol for human divers. Spotting a potential intruder, the dolphin will swim back to a boat where a handler fixes a strobe to its snout. The dolphin then buzzes out and bumps the intruder in the torso, sending a strobe light to the water’s surface. Armed soldiers on nearby boats do the rest — unless a trained sea lion happens to be handy. The sea lions are taught to carry a quick-release metal cuff attached to a line. They can dive toward swimmers and clamp the cuff at the thigh.

Both animals are so fabulously fleet-finned that swimming intruders aren’t likely to know what hit them. But what makes these marine mammals even more valuable are their super-human powers of observation. Sea lions have brilliant low-light vision and can see five times better than any human.

Dolphins are capable of much more. They track objects in water through echolocation — sending out clicks, sometimes several hundred a second, and hearing through their lower jaw when those sounds bounce back (though new research suggests the dolphin’s entire head may function as a giant ear). This hearing can be adjusted in a flash if a dolphin or its prey are in motion. And it’s inexplicably precise. “To our sonar, a rock may look like a mine, but it doesn’t look like that at all to a dolphin,” says Mike Rothe, who oversees this program at San Diego’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center.

Bottlenose dolphins can dive repeatedly without getting the bends and sleep with half their brain at a time. There’s evidence they translate sounds into mental images — a sort-of internal picture of what they hear. Those mental pictures are so sharp that dolphins can distinguish between a nickel and a dime at 100 yards. Some can tell apart brass, aluminum and stainless steel — even when each hunk of metal is buried two feet in mud.

The Navy began figuring out all of this more than half a century ago. The military was trying to mimic the hydrodynamic properties of dolphin skin to see if it could improve torpedoes. Then, in 1965, a dolphin named Tuffy was trained to deliver mail to aquanauts living in a cannister 200 feet below the California coast during the Navy’s SeaLab II project. Quickly the Navy’s interest shifted. At the height of the Vietnam War, in December 1970, dolphins patrolled Cam Ranh Bay after swimmers carrying explosives made repeated attacks on an ammunition pier. “There were no attacks while they were there,” says Navy spokesman Tom LaPuzza. And “the attacks resumed after they were gone.”

Dolphins also surrounded Navy ships as protection in Bahrain in the mid-1980s, and would later steam up the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Gunston Hall to sweep shipping lanes. In the late 1980s the Navy decided Bangor needed dolphins, too.

The military wasn’t prepared for the response it got.

Former trainers accused the Navy of abusing its animals. Environmentalists said the Navy was putting warm-water dolphins at risk in the Sound’s chilly waters. Some critics even speculated that dolphins had been trained to use nose-mounted guns to kill invaders.

The Navy denied everything. The Marine Mammal Commission investigated and found no abuse. But the Navy’s history of secrecy just made it worse. When animal-rights groups sued, the Navy agreed to reconsider its plans. But in the meantime the Cold War ended, Congress began shuttering military bases and plans were made to wind down the use of marine mammals.

“It’s the stuff that people believed they were doing but weren’t that got people most riled up,” says Paul Eugene Nachtigall, director of marine mammal research at the University of Hawaii.

The Navy may also have misjudged who we are: What Seattleite wouldn’t be a bit squeamish mixing words like “dolphin” and “terrorism”? Plus, contesting captive sea life is embedded in our DNA. Many still recall the squeals and thrashing in 1970, when whale hunters herded dozens of orcas — which, in fact, are large dolphins — into Penn Cove and lassoed them for sale to marine parks. To hide the whales that died then, wranglers wrapped carcasses in chains and stuffed them with rocks. The outrage that followed when those dead animals surfaced fueled Congress’ passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To this day, Whidbey Island residents stage an annual protest demanding that a Miami aquarium return Lolita, the sole surviving orca from that capture.

WHAT IS IT that makes these slippery-skinned creatures so special?

For many of us, it probably starts with The Smile, that squiggly thin perma-grin that makes dolphins look like they’re settling into a food coma after slurping a yummy herring souffle. Or perhaps it’s the exhuberant play, all that graceful mid-air arcing and tailfin flapping that showcases a complex and familiar intelligence.

It’s certainly not just that they’re fellow mammals. Heaven knows we don’t bestow such reverence on sea lions, those whip-smart lumbering tricksters best known for their sneaky skill at swiping fish. Them we’ve grown accustomed to chasing with firecrackers and rubber bullets to keep them from threatened salmon on the Columbia River. And that’s actually a step up from the slingshots and crossbows, piped-in whale sounds and plastic orcas that failed in the 1990s to drive the pinnipeds from steelhead at the Ballard Locks.

There’s just something deeper in our attraction to the genus Tursiops, something even the experts struggle to articulate. We seem to love them and use them in equal measure, while they in turn tend to drive us kind of nutty.

We campaign to unleash dolphins from theme parks — while forking over millions to touch or swim with them. We gave an Oscar to a documentary about a ruthless Japanese dolphin slaughter, a film that starred the man who trained Flipper. A decade earlier that very same ex-trainer, Ric O’Barry, was fined by the feds for letting loose and endangering dolphins the Navy had given to a special park that was preparing them for release to the wild. One of the animals was found two weeks later, starving.

Most of us don’t even know all they can do. “What I wouldn’t give to have 60 seconds inside a dolphin’s head!” says Hawaii scientist Nachtigall.

It’s increasingly clear that dolphins are higher-order beings — perhaps far higher than researchers once thought. Dolphins have been known to use tools, grabbing deep-sea sponges to scrape at mud and rocks to drive out fish. They’re self-aware enough to recognize themselves in mirrors. They’re fabulous at imitation and can mimic entire sequences of actions. Florida trainers once taught a dolphin to repeat the Batman theme song. “They’re actually better at aping behavior than apes,” says Janet Mann, a Georgetown University professor of psychology and biology.

She would know. Mann has tracked dolphin behavior in Shark Bay, Australia, for nearly a quarter-century. She’s widely believed to have spent more hours watching dolphins than any other scientist on Earth. And she’s watched dolphins interact with the social complexity and sophistication of cliquey high-school teens.

“Dolphins form alliances and alliances of alliances, sometimes more than 50 in a day,” she says. Dolphin A will hang out with B and C before joining up with dolphins D and E. But he may move on when dolphin F arrives because he doesn’t like being around D when F is there, too.

There’s also increasing evidence that cetaceans in general may have complex internal emotional lives. “We’re in a new era of science where we’re being forced to recognize that it’s not a philosophy but physiology,” says Toni Frohoff, director of TerraMar Research, a marine-mammal-advocacy group headquartered in Seattle. “Their neuroanatomy clearly shows that the parts of their brain responsible for emotion and suffering and pleasure are highly developed and even rivals our own.”

Increasingly, in some corners, it seems dolphins are people, too.

NEITHER THE ultrasound nor an MRI could explain what ailed Bunsen, but his discomfort would eventually wane after some rest and a more regimented focus on nutrition.

Most marine-mammal scientists say the Navy takes exceptional care of its animals and funds huge amounts of marine-mammal research. The Navy has taken dolphins to Alaska and South Korea in winter, and conducted numerous studies that suggest Puget Sound’s waters won’t be harmful. “The coldest winter night won’t even raise the resting metabolic rate of most of our dolphins,” says Mark Xitco, who oversees the animals’ care. Even so, Puget Sound’s dolphins will patrol only two hours a night. The rest of their time will be spent in heated pens.

That, of course, does little to counter objections.

“Dolphins are not produce,” Frohoff says. “Dolphins, like humans, can withstand temperatures that are colder than what’s comfortable. They’re not testing the dolphins’ capacity to suffer.”

Says Rothe, with the Navy: “We don’t see any evidence of suffering. And perhaps that’s the hardest thing to hide . . . something that isn’t there in the first place.”

Scientist Mann applauds the Navy’s care, but acknowledges the philosophical issues aren’t easy. Dolphins travel far and wide over a complex geography, regularly solving social and prey problems. “They have to be constantly challenged in order not to be bored, and you can’t imitate those challenges in a controlled environment,” Mann says.

But she isn’t trying to give them human qualities. After thousands of hours spent watching dolphins in the wild, “sometimes I can predict what’s going to happen next. But I don’t know what they think.”

And for the time being, no one else does, either.

Craig Welch is The Seattle Times environmental writer. Steve Ringman is a Times staff photographer.

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