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Navy Held Firing Tests Near Dolphin Stranding

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As initial autopsies suggested the dolphins might have been scared or disorientated, MoD officials said training exercises with a submarine and survey ship using sonar had also been held in Falmouth Bay.

MoD officials said the exercises were "highly unlikely" to have been the cause of the deaths, Britain's biggest mass stranding for nearly 30 years.

Campaigners called for an urgent inquiry into any possible connection.

The dolphins died after swimming up the Percuil River near Falmouth on Monday morning despite marine experts, wildlife volunteers and vets battling all day to save them.

While seven were saved and led back out to sea, one rescuer described the scene as a "sea of carnage".

A Royal Navy spokesman told Reuters on Tuesday there had been no training or official activity in the area since last Thursday.

But on Wednesday, the MoD issued a statement confirming there were "routine" live firing exercises 60 nautical miles from Falmouth on Friday.

Marine experts said this was considered close in terms of possible effects on dolphins.

Officials also said a survey vessel had been using "short-range side-scan sonar" for sea-bed mapping trials at the time of the incident.

MoD officials declined to comment on what training the submarine was doing but said it would have relied on passive sonar and not low frequency active sonar.

A spokesman said this sonar was "extremely unlikely" to have affected the dolphins.

The local coastguard had issued warnings to ships in the area to watch for "extensive" submarine activity.

Initial tests on some of the dead dolphins showed they had been healthy, with no signs of illness or injury.

A spokesman for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue charity, Tony Woodley, called for an official investigation into the Navy activity.

"We hope the authorities will look into these very serious incidents to find out whether indeed they were the cause of the strandings," he said.

"These animals had no food in their stomachs, which flies in the face of the suggestion they were following prey inshore -- one of the suggestions is that a loud noise perhaps scared them onshore."

He said it was the largest mass stranding in Britain since 1981 when pilot whales beached on the east coast. More tests are being carried out on the dead dolphins in the coming days.

(Editing by Stephen Addison)

Story by Andrew Hough