Mission Improbable: Sea Lions as Aqua Cops
Daniell Hepting (CAS’89) preps baby sea lions for Navy programs| From Alumni Notes | By Leslie Friday
Daniell Hepting with one of the California sea lions she trains for the Navy in San Diego, Calif. Photo courtesy of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific
Last May, Daniell Hepting was among several swimmers treading water in San Francisco Bay, playing the role of a criminal in a demonstration of the city’s emergency response program. One minute she was floating in the tea-colored water, and the next thing she knew a leg cuff had been snapped on her thigh.
The underwater “cop” who cuffed her: a California sea lion.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Hepting (CAS’89), one of the sea lion’s trainers. “It was almost like an advanced game of hide-and-seek.”
Hepting is an animal trainer at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific in San Diego, Calif. She marvels that she’s paid for doing a job she loves.
“The seed was planted a long time ago,” says Hepting, when as a kid she saw dolphins in Pensacola, Fla. “But I didn’t really realize it was a real job you can have.”
A New Orleans native, Hepting majored in psychology at BU and later earned a master’s in social work from Simmons College. She spent a couple of years as an adolescent psychiatric social worker at Dorchester’s Caritas Carney Hospital.
On a whim, Hepting started volunteering in the animal interaction programs at the New England Aquarium. “The training of animals is very similar to kids learning how to not do a particular behavior,” she says. She soon became a full-time staff member, responsible for the care and training of Atlantic harbor seals, northern fur seals, and California sea lions.
When she learned about the Navy’s San Diego program from colleagues, she decided to apply. She has been at the Point Loma base since September 2008.
The Navy facility is home to 80 bottle-nosed dolphins and 26 California sea lions trained to work in three areas: underwater mine detection, identification and retrieval of underwater objects, and a diver defense program, like the one demonstrated in San Francisco.
Hepting, who is a Navy contractor but does not serve in the armed forces, trains baby sea lions, which are all male, weigh about 80 pounds, and come from places like SeaWorld Orlando or rescue and rehabilitation facilities. Under her guidance, they get used to people brushing their teeth, checking their mouths and eyes, and drawing blood. They’re also desensitized to everyday activities around the base, like riding on boats, walking on docks, and swimming around piers or vessels.
Once they’re accustomed to humans, sea lions are trained as aqua cops, or experts in detecting and tagging submerged objects. They are excellent candidates for the job: they can dive several hundred feet, see well in low light, and have acute directional hearing under water.
Sea lions in the diver defense program patrol piers for suspicious swimmers. Once they spot one, they speed back to their handlers’ boat and touch their nose to a paddle, indicating a find. Trainers then give them a bite plate with a leg clamp attached. Within seconds, the sea lion returns to the intruder, affixes the clamp, and races back to the boat. Authorities in a nearby boat haul up the suspect by an attached cable.
“It’s very quick,” says Ann Dakis, a public affairs specialist at the base. “They’re in and out before you even know what happens.”
Dakis can’t say how many arrests sea lions have made, only that they have “100 percent success.” They were deployed with the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Manama, Bahrain, from 2003 to 2005 and are stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in King’s Bay, Ga.
Sea lions are also trained to identify bombs dropped by Air Force pilots during training exercises. They can either flag them to demonstrate pilot accuracy or attach a clamp to the device so it can be removed from the ocean floor. Each time sea lions perform a task correctly they get a pat and their favorite treat: fish.
Hepting and Dakis point out that specially trained Navy divers perform all of the dangerous aspects of mine identification and removal. Most sea lions under the military’s care, they say, live 30 years in and around San Diego Bay, longer than they would in the wild.
“The Navy is committed to caring for them their entire lives,” Hepting says, “even if they’re not working.”