Marine Mammal Trainer

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Marine Mammal Trainer


Have you ever seen Shamu do flips at SeaWorld or those cute sea lions swim in circles in unison? Chances are, the sea lions did not get together on their own and put on a water show, but instead learned how to jump in the air splashing waves everywhere by marine mammal trainers. Marine mammal trainers care for and train dolphins, whales, seals, sea lions, walruses and other marine mammal species. People often confuse mammal trainers with marine biologists, however those who actually swim with the dolphins are marine mammal trainers.

Marine mammal trainers are responsible for both the animal's mental and physical health. Many train marine mammals using a system of positive reinforcement called "operant conditioning". Aside from the actual training process, trainers must also keep up-to-date records about the animals, prepare food, clean habitats, perform general maintenance duties, interact with the public, give interviews, answer letters, do enrichment with the animals and carry out training discussions.

Another important set of behaviors they train mammals to learn are called husbandry behaviors. Such behaviors include learning voluntary presentations for blood samples, as well as examining the animal's mouth and other body parts. Veterinarians regularly come in to visit and examine the mammals, and because of this behavior training, it is easy to get samples and other fluids from the animals. These behaviors help to monitor and maintain the health of an animal.

The primary responsibility of the marine mammal trainer is always to maintain and enhance the health and well-being of the animals in their care. To achieve this goal, marine mammal trainers must understand and work hard to ensure that their animals are provided with the highest quality food, aquatic environments, structural habitats, social and behavioral opportunities and medical care. Also, the cleanliness of the animals' habitat increases their health, therefore, trainers often scuba dive into their habitat to clean. Also, trainers keep a close eye on the water quality, pH levels, alkalinity, salinity and temperatures to keep the mammals in a comfortable environment.

In addition to the training, marine mammal trainers also run play sessions. This is literally play time which has proven to be very rewarding for both the trainer and the animal. Marine mammals enjoy playing with a variety of toys, such as mats, hula hoops, and water hoses. They enjoy playing games with the trainers and having water poured into their mouths.

During presentations and training sessions marine mammal trainers often enter the water with the animals. It usually takes a long time to get the animals accustomed to having people in the water with them. Once they get used to it, it automatically becomes rewarding for them. Trainers usually refer to these in-water sessions as "waterwork". Waterwork is usually the most exciting part of the presentation, not only for the audience, but for the trainers as well. Ultimately, it is education that allows the public to develop an understanding and respect for marine life, which will help to ensure its survival.
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  Interests and Skills  
Marine mammal trainers must have a love of animals and an interest in marine life. They have inquiring minds and generally portray a high level of enthusiasm for their work. They also need the stamina and endurance but also a great deal of calm and patience. Most trainers are also certified divers and have a great deal of experience working with the water.

Marine mammal trainers are self-confident, creative, and have the ability and desire to think independently. Successful marine mammal trainers have strong communication skills, are good problem solvers and enjoy working with equipment and instruments at tasks that require precision and details.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Prepare food and feed mammals
  • Constantly clean their habitat
  • Study the behavior and relationships of marine mammals and their interactions within the environment, including the deep ocean and shoreline areas
  • Train mammals to act and react in certain ways
  • Assist in the rehabilitation of sick and injured animals
  • Keep daily health records about each animal
  • Monitor water pollution and pH levels
  • A typical day for a marine mammal trainer will depend largely on their working environment. They are usually found in an aquarium, laboratory, the seashore and at sea on research ships. The work is often outdoors, in all types of weather. They are sometimes away from home for weeks at a time, working outdoors in all kinds of weather conditions. The physical requirements also vary considerably in this occupation and working in the water with mammals can be extremely demanding.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Marine mammal trainers work in aquariums, zoos, non-profit environmental advocacy organizations, eco-tourism companies, university research laboratories, industrial research centers, private companies, and government research laboratories or marine stations.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Because marine mammal trainers tend to be secure in their position and close to the animals they work with, the job turnover rate is low. Once people secure a job in this field, they tend to stay for life.

  Educational Paths  
Although their is no etched out educational path to becoming a marine mammal trainer, the minimum requirement is usually a Bachelor of Science degree in biology or marine biology. Experts say that the more education one has about marine mammals, the easier it is to find a job in this field. Therefore get as much experience as possible: volunteer at an aquarium or a zoo, work in a veterinary clinic, farm or a pet store.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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