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Secret weapon
David Pugliese

8th March 2003
The Scotsman

Dr Sam Ridgway kneels at the side of the pool at Sea World in San Diego, California, and waits for his Canadian protégé to come and greet him. It doesn’t take long for Muk, a 34-year-old female beluga whale, to swim the length of the 20m-long tank. On Ridgway’s command, Muk lifts much of her 3.5m torso out of the water so he can stroke the top of her head, a bulbous dome with the texture and appearance of a hard-boiled egg. Her demeanour is gentle and trusting.

"They’re smart animals," says Ridgway, one of the world’s leading experts on marine-mammal physiology. "We don’t have a lot of intelligence tests, but we believe they are somewhere between a smart dog and a chimp."

Near by, Clark Bowers, who helped capture Muk off the coast of Manitoba in 1977 and spent decades working with the animal, watches her graceful swimming. Occasionally he leans over the side of the tank to touch her head gently as she glides past. Bowers is now retired as a marine-mammal trainer and it’s been six years since he last saw Muk. Back for a visit, he still seems fascinated by the creature with whom he spent so much of his working life.

Muk is no ordinary whale. She is the property of the US navy, recruited with the Canadian government’s approval into a secret military animal programme in 1977. To the navy, the 550kg Muk is a "marine-mammal system", a member of a menagerie of creatures, including dolphins and sea lions, that has been quietly deployed for military purposes for the past 40 years.

The navy’s marine-mammal programme became arguably one of the most controversial of the US military’s Cold War research projects. Bowers and Ridgway played key roles in the programme, which at its peak in the 1980s had more than 130 mammals in its ranks, including six Canadian belugas. The programme was dogged by allegations of animal abuse and rumours that docile underwater creatures were being trained to kill - accusations that navy officials deny to this day.

The end of the Cold War meant radical changes to the programme, with many of the animals being declared surplus to requirements. These were typically retired into the navy’s care or sent to civilian-run aquariums, such as Sea World. But for Muk, there appears to be no end in sight for her navy service. She has spent the last 25 years training to dive to great depths to recover valuable experimental torpedoes. She has been the subject of tests that could help determine if a new type of sonar, which would hunt enemy submarines, might harm marine life. The navy now hopes to breed her so it can study her offspring.

For environmentalists and animal-rights groups, Muk represents all that is wrong with the navy’s use of marine mammals. To Mark Berman, a marine-mammal specialist with Earth Island Institute, one of the groups that have unsuccessfully campaigned to close down the programme, Muk is one of the last prisoners of the Cold War.

Throughout the decades between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US navy held a technological edge that allowed it to dominate the world’s oceans. Maintaining this meant constantly carrying out new research. In 1960 navy scientists noticed how effortlessly dolphins move through the water, and were determined to try to copy nature’s unique hydrodynamic design. If they could discover how dolphins travel at such great speeds and for so long, they believed the same principles could be applied in designing torpedoes, ship hulls and missiles.

Equally interesting was the dolphin’s sonar system, which helped to guide it accurately across the open ocean. With these mysteries unlocked, who knew what weapons they could create. Major success came in 1965, when the navy deployed a bottled-nosed dolphin named Tuffy to carry equipment to divers working 70m underwater. The breakthrough wasn’t that Tuffy was smart enough to deliver the tools, but that for the first time one of the navy’s marine mammals had worked in the open water without a leash to prevent it escaping.

This was the level of reliability the programme needed to move it into full gear. Throughout the next decade, the navy’s marine-mammal force was expanded to include dolphins and whales, who were used to locate and mark underwater mines; the animals would deposit buoy lines near the mines so divers could defuse them.

The most secret programme was a team of dolphins, the Swimmer Defence Team, that would protect military installations against enemy divers. When the dolphins detected intruders, they would either vocally alert their navy handlers or tag a swimmer with a tracking device. A five-dolphin team was even sent to Vietnam in 1970 to guard the harbour at Cam Ranh Bay. Full details of their efforts remain classified, but allegations were later made by animal-rights activists that the dolphins had been trained to kill with knives attached to their snouts or to carry hypodermic syringes and inject enemy divers with lethal drugs.

The whales were employed in deep diving, to search for and recover experimental torpedoes and missiles. Finding the torpedoes at such great depths was dangerous for human divers, who were also hampered by poor visibility. Whales didn’t have such problems; they could hold their breath for up to 20 minutes and used their sonar to search for objects.

The naval Cold War began shifting more and more to the Arctic, where Soviet submarines plied the frigid waters, the ice pack providing excellent cover. The US navy needed torpedoes that could destroy Russian subs under the ice, and that required new weapons experiments. A different breed of marine mammal was needed, one that was at home in extremely cold water and had a highly developed sense of sonar.

For Ridgway, the beluga was a perfect fit. "We knew it was possible to train pilot whales and dolphins, but you can’t take dolphins into cold water," he explains. The belugas, in contrast, could operate in both warm and cold water.

For recruits to the programme, christened Cold Ops, the navy turned to the Canadian government. Hudson Bay was one of the world’s largest sanctuaries for beluga whales at the time, with more than 20,000. Each summer, they would swim to the mouth of the Churchill River Estuary to bask in its warm, shallow water. The estuary provided good feeding grounds and was also a safe place for the whales to give birth.

The capture process was straightforward. The whales were friendly, often approaching boats or scuba divers. An Inuit hunter hired by the navy would wait until one came near then jump on its back and lasso it. Another Inuit would slip a stretcher underneath the whale and move it to shore. Bowers thought the process resembled a rodeo. After its capture, each whale was placed in a watertight box, lying on a stretcher in a few centimetres of water. It was loaded on a military transport jet to be taken to the United States.

As well as Muk, a female believed to be about ten years old, Bowers’ team captured Noc, a one-year-old male, and Churchill, a six-year-old male. They were taught how to dive untethered. Three additional belugas would later be recruited.

Although the Cold Ops programme was gaining success, it was becoming a major public-relations headache. The rumours that dolphins and whales were being trained to kill refused to die. In the 1981 issue of the military journal US Naval Institute Proceedings a grim scenario was painted of how America might prepare for attacks by the marine mammals the Russians had been training. One such measure would involve protecting a harbour by poisoning the surrounding waters.

The television news magazine 60 Minutes looked into allegations of animal abuse and claims that the navy had trained some of the animals to harass enemy scuba divers by tearing at their facemasks and air-tanks. Richard O’Barry, the trainer for TV’s Flipper, alleged he had been approached by the CIA during the Vietnam War to create an army of dolphins for underwater combat.

Rick Trout, a navy dolphin trainer, would later write that on the second day on the job he had watched in horror as a fellow trainer kicked a young sea lion in the head twice in an attempt to get the animal to eat. Trout says he quit after trying to stop such acts of cruelty as depriving the animals of food.

Even some on the inside were concerned about navy tactics. Alexandra Morton was a 22-year-old whale biologist fresh out of university when she went to work with Ridgway. Her research focused on whether it was possible to determine if a female dolphin was ovulating based on the sounds she made. But she soon grew disillusioned. She had been warned to avoid a dolphin named Slan since he had been trained to kill humans. And although she didn’t have any contact with the Canadian whales, Morton grew very upset with how the dolphins were handled during her two years with Ridgway. "They were doing very invasive brain research, which was interesting from a science point of view, but they had to restrain the animals and put probes right through their brain tissue," says Morton. "I was pretty shocked."

While the navy handled the PR fallout, which focused mainly on its dolphins, the Cold Ops programme proceeded, attracting little attention. Although the beluga force had been trained for ocean reliability, deeper dives were required if they were to be used full-time for torpedo recovery. Bowers says that the whales were able to descend about 200m on their test dives, but their handlers believed they could go much farther. For that, Noc and Muk would be returned to Canada for more elaborate experiments at Nanoose Bay, a weapons-testing range tucked into the east side of Vancouver Island. Importantly, the seabed was mud, allowing for soft landings that left the expensive weapons and their sensor equipment intact.

As Noc and Muk were penned on Winchelsea Island in Nanoose Bay, however, animal-rights activists infiltrated the base and freed them. Noc eventually swam back into the enclosure. Muk headed down the coast, ending up 20km away. But the training regime paid off, as Muk dutifully followed the Cold Ops boat back to her pen. For Bowers, this was a slap in the face for environmental groups, who insisted the navy’s marine mammals were being mistreated. Animals that were poorly treated, he reasoned, wouldn’t willingly return to their abusers.

When the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, the programme faced its biggest threat: widespread defence spending cutbacks. Many of the animals were released into their natural habitat or relocated to civilian-run aquariums. But Noc and Muk weren’t so fortunate. The US military was facing a new problem that required their talents. It had developed an underwater surveillance system, called low-frequency active sonar, that was able to track enemy submarines at far greater distances than ever before, and especially in shallow waters close to shore. Low-frequency sound can travel hundreds of kilometres in the ocean, and using it for sonar is akin to sweeping an area with a floodlight. It was estimated that four ships outfitted with LFAS could conduct surveillance on 80 per cent of the world’s oceans.

The navy had a lot riding on LFAS. It had taken more than a decade to develop, at an estimated cost of 350 million. But environmentalists and some marine biologists were appalled. They said LFAS emitted the loudest non-explosive sound ever introduced into the ocean, and suggested the navy’s system was behind the mysterious mass beachings of whales and dolphins.

The navy acknowledges that LFAS produces levels of 160 to 180 decibels (the sound created by a lawn mower two metres away) at a kilometre from its source. But environmentalists estimate the system pumps out 235 decibels, far greater than the noise level of a 747 jet. Whales and other marine mammals are particularly vulnerable to noise, since they rely on hearing as much as we rely on sight. A deaf whale, according to marine specialists, is a dead whale.

But the intense sound emitted by LFAS was not the only concern for marine biologists. The signals are in the same range as those that many large marine mammals, such as whales, use for communication. So LFAS may hinder such essential functions as mating, feeding, navigating and communicating.

The navy needed to research how sensitive marine mammals are to sound. A programme dubbed Deep Hear, with Ridgway at the helm and Noc and Muk as his subjects, was launched. Its experiments involved Noc and Muk diving to an underwater platform where they were to listen for a sound tone projected at random intervals. When the whales heard the tone, they would whistle in response. The results showed the whales’ perception of sound did not change in shallow or deep waters. Their ability to hear human-made sounds was just as great at depths of 300m as it was in shallow water. Those results suggested that the loud noise emitted by LFAS