Dolphin base looks like a sewage treatment plant
SAN DIEGO, California––Campaigning for an end to marine mammal use by the U.S. Navy, former dolphin trainers Ric Trout and Russ Rector got a big boost on April 27, 2017 from CBS News 8 reporter Steve Price, who extensively aired recent video clips of the main Navy dolphin facility, located beneath Harbor Drive Bridge at Spanish Landing in San Diego.
Viewers used to seeing video from the relatively expansive SeaWorld San Diego tanks were likely shocked to see dolphins rising from concrete tanks that drivers whizzing over the bridge at 60 miles an hour are more likely to mistake for a sewage treatment plant than recognize as housing used for more than 50 years for animals as large and intelligent as dolphins.
Pens or cells?
“They’re very small pens, 30 feet by 30 feet by 12 feet deep,” Rector told Price via Skype from his home in the Florida Keys, who along with Trout directed and funded months of videography from the Harbor Drive Bridge to gather many of the images aired by CBS News 8. Others were captured by the CBS News 8 helicopter.
Asked Rector on camera, “How would you like to spend your life in 30 feet by 30 feet by 12 feet?”
Out three times in 18 months
Relative to the 10-to-13-foot length of an adult bottlenose dolphin, the Navy dolphin facility at Spanish Landing offers dolphins little more space than is allotted to human prisoners at a typical state or federal penitentiary. And the dolphins appear to get much less time for out-of-pen exercise.
Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), the Navy branch responsible for directing the marine mammal program, “did release to CBS News 8 a summary sheet of Navy marine mammal training exercises over the past 18 months,” Price said. “The summary described exercises where Navy dolphins ‘cleared inert training mines’ from shallow waters near San Clemente Island, Seal Beach, and San Diego harbor. The summary said the exercises were ‘critical to warfare readiness.’”
85 dolphins, 55 sea lions
The current Navy inventory of 85 dolphins and 55 sea lions include some bred by the program itself; others were bought years ago from SeaWorld.
“Most of the dolphins and sea lions are kept in San Diego Bay, but some are located in Kings Bay, Georgia and Bangor, Washington. The Navy won’t say exactly how many animals are kept in each of the three locations,” Price said.
As a matter of accommodation to climate, the Kings Bay facility is more likely to house dolphins; the Bangor facility more likely to keep sea lions.
Many of the Navy marine mammals are now geriatric, making the Spanish Landing facility at times look more like an inelegant hospice than anything one might recognize as either a dolphinarium or a military base.
“The video shows Navy contractors holding an IV solution bag over one dolphin while vets tend to the animal. Another clip shows a staff member using a bag and tube to force-feed a dolphin food and/or fluids,” Price narrated.
“One dolphin is seen sitting in a pen for days harnessed into a floatation device,” lest the dolphin “sink underwater and drown,” Price continued.
Said Rector, “I have videotape of animals literally for hours floating around in those pens supported by floatation, not moving. That’s not living. That’s dying.”
Persian Gulf War veteran euthanized
“CBS News 8 repeatedly asked the Navy if its dolphins were sick and/or dying,” Price said. “Officials declined our request to conduct an on-camera interview with one of the Navy’s contracted marine mammal veterinarians. Instead, SPAWAR Director of Public Affairs James Fallin issued a written statement confirming that one dolphin had been euthanized.
That dolphin was Makai, 46, one of nine U.S. Navy dolphins who were deployed in the Persian Gulf in 2003. Makai and Tacoma, now 35, reportedly patrolled the port of Umm Qasr, Oman with three anonymous dolphins and four dolphins named Kahili, Kona, Punani, and Jefe.
Among them, the Navy said at the time, they found 22 underwater mines during their first two weeks of guarding Navy supply ships.
The U.S. Navy previously deployed six dolphins each to Cam Ranh Bay in 1970 during the Vietnam War and off Bahrain in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.
Web site disappeared
“Fallin did not respond to follow-up questions asking about the nature of the Makai’s ailments, or questions inquiring about additional dolphin deaths at the SPAWAR facility,” Price said.
Further, Price added, “In the wake of CBS News 8’s investigation, SPAWAR abruptly took down its entire Navy Marine Mammal Program web site detailing more than one thousand medical and technical studies conducted on its animals.” But CBS News 8 was able to post a link to a cached version of the site.
$29 million per year
The Navy marine mammal program is managed by civilian contractors employed by a company called Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), for which Trout trained dolphins in the 1980s before becoming a whistleblower against what he perceived as abuse of both the animals and taxpayers.
Currently, said Price, “The navy marine mammal program costs taxpayers more than $29 million per year, according to federal contracts issued by the Navy.”
Between rare training exercises and even scarcer deployments, the Navy dolphins are veterinary research subjects.
In January 2016, about three months after Trout and Rector introduced their Campaign To End the Obsolete Navy Marine Mammal Program with an October 22, 2016 rally at the Harbor Drive Bridge, SPAWAR floated a scheme to deploy Navy dolphins to try to locate the last 20-odd endangered vaquita porpoises surviving in the Sea of Cortez, the northern end of the Gulf of California, and herd the vaquitas into sea pens to attempt captive breeding.
“For the U.S. Navy,” ANIMALS 24-7 assessed at the time, “the focal issue may be not saving the vaquita, but rather, saving the embattled Navy Marine Mammal Program.
“They’re trying to greenwash the Navy dolphin program,” charged Rector, who before turning against marine mammal captivity trained dolphins for the defunct Ocean World marine mammal park in Florida from 1969 to 1976.
“It’s a makework project for trainers who haven’t done anything useful since the Navy dolphin program began,” Rector alleged. “Do you know what they’ve trained the dolphins to do? According to their publicity,” Rector summarized, “they can find lost divers. Do you know what you do if you’re a lost diver? You float up. You don’t just wait around the bottom for a dolphin to find you.
“It’s going to cause the extinction of the vaquita,” Rector charged. “The Navy uses bottlenose dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are mortal enemies of porpoises. They kill them for fun. You can’t train this behavior out of them. But even if you could, and you can’t,” Rector noted, “nobody has ever kept porpoises alive for long in any kind of captivity.”
The possible use of the Navy dolphins to herd vaquitas has not resurfaced since meeting a critical reception from conservationists including World Wildlife Fund-Mexico chief executive Omar Vidal.
But SPAWAR and SAIC continue to defend the Navy marine mammal program.
“The Navy has long-term plans to retire its trained marine mammals and replace them with underwater robots,” explained Price.
Responded SPAWAR spokesperson James Fallin, “While the long term goal remains to replace dolphins with machines, we are not there yet,” a response begging the question of why, if the dolphins were ever particularly effective in a combat theatre, more of them have not been deployed more often.
“Dolphins & sea lions did not volunteer”
E-mailed Trout to ANIMALS 24-7 after the CBS News 8 broadcast aired, “Just as innocent dolphins and sea lions did not volunteer for the inhumane existence that the U.S Navy and SAIC claim is national security and research, so have taxpayers been duped into wasting hard-earned earned tax dollars on flawed, abusive, obsolete animal cruelty putting the lives of our military folks and Navy assets at risk.”
Trout urged viewers to “Write or call your two U.S. Senators, your Congressional Representative and all Defense Appropriations Committee members in the House & Senate. Firmly demand that the Navy Marine Mammal Program be repealed and defunded, and that ‘Operation Honorable Discharge’ begin, to retire over 130 marine mammals to far better sanctuary or other existing civilian facilities.”