Become a Marine Mammal Trainer: Education and Career Roadmap

Jan 22, 2022

Learn how to become a marine mammal trainer. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in marine mammal training.

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Should I Become a Marine Mammal Trainer?

Marine mammals include dolphins, whales, sea lions, seals, and otters. In addition to training these animals to interact with people, marine mammal trainers also perform daily care duties. Tasks may involve preparing food and vitamins, cleaning animals' environments, administering medical tests, and ensuring that animals have daily physical activity and mental entertainment. These professionals should have animal handling experience, as well as public speaking skills and swimming skills.

Trainers also develop and implement educational programs for the public, using the mammals they train and to teach people about the animals themselves and about conservation. The work can be physically demanding, and some trainers work irregular hours, during evenings, holidays and weekends. There is some danger in working with marine mammals, even trained ones, and trainers must exercise caution.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Field Animal science, biology, marine biology, zoology
Certification Scuba, CPR, and first aid are often required
Experience Some amount of animal handling experience for entry-level; senior-level trainer positions might require multiple years of work experience in the field
Key Skills Strong skills in communication, public speaking, and swimming
Median Salary (2020) $31,520 (for all animal trainers)

Sources: SeaWorld, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's-level training is usually required of marine mammal trainers, but there are no bachelor's degree programs in marine mammal training specifically. Thus, most zoos and aquariums want their trainers to have a degree in life science or a subject related to animals. Examples of subject areas include animal behavior, marine biology, and, though rare, exotic animal training.

Curricula in these programs might include courses in biology, chemistry, physics, math, marine mammalogy, marine animal physiology, marine ecology, evolution, animal behavior, vertebrate zoology, oceanography, and conservation topics. Some courses will have lab requirements. Fieldwork and research projects may also be included.

Experience working with animals is crucial in this field, so aspiring marine mammal trainers should take advantage of volunteer opportunities and internships at humane societies, zoos, aquariums, and wildlife rehabilitation centers, particularly those with marine mammal programs. Sometimes internships can count for college credit, and some also offer a paycheck or stipend. Volunteers and interns can learn to perform tasks ranging from cleaning animals' homes to preparing their food and learning hand signals for training. The professional reference gained is another benefit.

It's important for marine mammal trainers to have public speaking skills, since they often give educational presentations. Taking drama courses to improve performance skills could be a good idea, since trainers and marine animals often put on public demonstrations.

Step 2: Complete Scuba Certification

Scuba certification is required for many marine mammal training jobs. Training usually involves a classroom or online learning portion with written tests, as well as an applied portion in a pool and open water. During the open water training, one will learn to use diving equipment and breathe underwater in an outdoor setting, such as a lake, reservoir, sea, or ocean. There are different levels of certification, starting with a basic scuba diver and advancing to open water diver, rescue diver, and master scuba diver.

Candidates may want to complete a scuba certification program that covers CPR and first aid. These certifications are also required for many marine mammal training positions, so earning all of them at once would be an efficient way to expand your credentials.

Step 3: Gain Professional Experience

Marine mammal training is a highly competitive field, and those individuals who acquire positions typically go through an assistantship or apprenticeship period, shadowing expert trainers for up to four years. During this time, entry-level trainers get to know the animals' personalities and individual needs, as well as learn new training techniques. They may advance through various levels, like associate trainer, regular trainer, and senior trainer.

Step 4: Attend Continuing Education Events

Some professional organizations and aquariums offer seminars, workshops, or short courses that can introduce you to new research findings, as well as training techniques and demonstrations. Topics covered might include training using positive reinforcement and operant conditioning, marine mammal maternity, ways to enhance animals' environments, and marine medical care.

Working with marine mammals often involves swimming activities and the ability to perform a lot of physically demanding work. It's important to continue to work on these skills for reasons of safety and quality job performance. Some employers routinely give swim tests to their employees to make sure they're still strong enough swimmers to safely work with large marine mammals in the water. CPR and first aid are also skills that trainers may need to keep current throughout their careers.

To recap, aspiring marine mammal trainers should consider earning a degree in a field such as animal science or marine biology, taking advantage of volunteer and internship opportunities, and then gaining an entry-level position that will allow them to work their way up in the field.

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