'Flipper' Fights Saddam, Looks for Mines

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

Allied forces have some unlikely help in their fight against Saddam Hussein -- sea lions and Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins.

In an effort to clear deadly mines from the waters around Iraq, coalition naval forces are using underwater, flippered friends equipped with cameras and specially trained to spot mines.

The lurking explosives are a threat for the military patrolling Iraqi waters, but these underwater searchers are helping divers ensure that the coastline is free of danger for humanitarian aid shipments on the way to the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

On Thursday, thanks in part to the dolphins, the first shipments of aid reached the shores of Iraq.

Dolphins are trained in swimmer defense, meaning they look for enemy divers, and in mine hunting, according to Tom LaPuzza, public affairs officer for the Navy's Marine Mammal Program.

"Mine hunting is what they are doing in the Gulf now," LaPuzza told Foxnews.com. "[They are] looking for mines in shallow water or mines tethered in the water waiting for a ship to hit them."

The dolphins will use their sonar to seek out mines, which may have been planted on the seabed by Iraqis. Regular sonar hardware is less effective than the mammals' highly tuned natural abilities, LaPuzza said.

And U.S. Navy Captain Mike Tillotson said the safety of the mammals, coming all the way from San Diego, Calif., is a top priority.

"They were flown over on a military animal transporter in fleece-lined slings," Tillotson said. "We keep them in a certain amount of water. They travel very well."

The dolphins have been trained not to make contact with the mines but to place a marker near them. Human divers remove the mines.

K-Dog, the bottle-nosed dolphin pictured, is part of the multinational Commander Task Unit 55.4.3 and is conducting missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and will continue to patrol the waters off Iraq.

"They are an early warning system. They are not supposed to come into contact with the mines or fight enemy swimmers," retired Navy SEAL Martin Strong told Fox News.

After the Persian Gulf War, minesweepers removed 13,000 mines from the waterway, according to NPR.org. However, some may remain.

In addition to dolphins and seals, the Navy uses robots to root out the underwater explosives -- but the mammals have proven more effective.

The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program began in about 1960 when Navy scientists began studying the mammals' hydrodynamics in hopes of improving torpedo, ship and submarine designs, according to the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Web site.

Soon researchers found that dolphins and sea lions had other assets that would be helpful to the military -- dolphin sonar is unmatched by man-made equipment, and sea lions are used because of their sensitive underwater directional hearing and low-light level vision.

Animal rights groups have protested the use of the mammals in military endeavors, saying it is abusive to the animals. Controversy has surrounded the capture and release of the animals.

The Navy holds that the dolphins are well cared for.

"They are operating in their natural environment. Mines don't go off when dolphins go by them," said LaPuzza. "The environment is not dangerous."

The dolphins are accompanied by their military handlers, Navy civilian trainers and veterinarians.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.