So You Want To Be a Marine Mammal Specialist…

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The most common question our team is asked is how to become a dolphin trainer. For me, being a dolphin trainer was a childhood dream, so I geared my education and experience toward achieving this goal at a young age. Growing up in Chicago, I attended many lectures and visited both the Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo as often as I could. After high school, I participated in a volunteer program for a summer at a research facility in Hawaii, which only solidified my dreams and allowed me to understand further the path I needed to take.

The most important advice I can give someone who has the desire to join our incredible team is to understand that this is not a 9-to-5 job; it is a lifestyle. I can turn my computer off when I leave for the day, but of course cannot do the same with the animals. Any applicant must be willing to work weekends, various shifts and even holidays as animals do not take holidays and snow days off!

national aquarium dolphins

We spend a lot of time with our dolphins every day of the week, bonding with them, training new behaviors and doing presentations for our visitors!

First, the basics: It is recommended to have a degree in psychology (we work with the animals using operant condition), biology (so there is a basic understanding of anatomy and physiology) or zoology (the study of animals). Also, participating in internships provides hands-on experience (like the ones we have here at the National Aquarium) and are great ways to get a glimpse into the field, make connections and gain practical skills. One must also be a comfortable swimmer and typically be scuba certified.

With the basics covered, moving into the field can be a challenge. The field is very competitive, and there are not as many opportunities due to the number of facilities in the country. Being willing to move around and to keep options open will definitely help to broaden the field opportunities.

Each facility is structured differently. In general, however, the amount of experience will directly correlate to the level of responsibility and opportunity (as with any career choice). Here at the National Aquarium, we have aides, assistant trainers, trainers, and senior trainers. Moving from one level to the next takes dedication, experience and time. A typical day begins at 6:30 am, when we sort through hundreds of pounds a fish in order to make up the animals diets.

national aquarium dolphin staff sorting fish

Throughout the day, we participate in public presentations, various training and play sessions as well as research and enrichment studies. Sounds glamorous and fun, right? Unfortunately, that is just half the day. The rest is filled with cleaning, making and washing fish buckets, diving to clean the habitat and a lot of record-keeping.

Being in the animal field is incredible and extremely rewarding, but it is not without sacrifices, hard work and dedication. Got a question about my job? Ask me in the comments section! 

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67 Responses to “So You Want To Be a Marine Mammal Specialist…”


  1. 1 Brandy Lau June 11, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    I’m working on my Marine Biology degree. I just have to complete Organic Chemistry 1 and 2. I was wondering if a diving certificate is important to have. I’ve always wanted to become a dolphin trainer since I was 5.

    • 2 National Aquarium June 12, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Thanks for the question, Brandy! Being scuba certified is definitely helpful! A lot of our staff’s work requires diving and cleaning the exhibit space!

  2. 3 MJ June 20, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Approximatly how many jobs are there for dolphin trainers throughout the US?

    • 4 National Aquarium June 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      That’s a great question, MJ! It’s definitely a field that has limited openings. That said, there’s so much you can do with dolphins aside from working as a trainer. We work with a lot of psychologists and researchers to do some incredible cognition work with dolphins!

  3. 5 jim June 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Are you able to still have time to raise a family or are the dolphins your family??

    • 6 Allison Ginsburg June 20, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      Hi Jim
      The answer is actually yes to both! I have three wonderful children (who of course love coming to the aquarium) and we have two dogs. The dolphins are what I consider to be part of my extended family and I feel lucky to share in all of their joys such as births as well as their times of need.

  4. 7 Sandy Kemp June 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I live in Nashville, TN and want to become a certified diver, do you have any suggestions as to where I might be able to do this? TN is, of course, land locked, no deep water here, just rivers, lakes, pools and gravel pits.

    • 8 National Aquarium June 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      Luckily, you don’t necessarily need access to the ocean to get your scuba certification! We would say when looking for certification classes, it’s best to take them from instructors that have international/national accreditation (like PADI http://www.padi.com/scuba/).

      Also, we know it’s not necessarily close, but once you’re certified, maybe think about becoming a volunteer diver for the Tennessee Aquarium (http://www.tnaqua.org/GetInvolved/VolunteerOpportunities/VolunteerDiver.aspx)! Organizations like ours are always on the lookout for passionate volunteers. Hope this helps!

    • 9 That_girl July 22, 2013 at 12:43 am

      Hey Sandy! My grandfather was a certified diver. He offered to train my cousins and I to get our liscense in it. It’s actually surprisingly easy! If you contact him I’m sure he can give you some suggestions ! And yes we do live in Tennessee as a matter of fact he goes to Nashville a lot. He did retire this last year though. But I am positive he can set you up with someone close by! His name is Mac Mathews you can contact him at 1931-729-5560 which is his business number.

    • 10 Rocio January 25, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      Hi my name is rocio and I’m 13 years old I always wanted to work with dolphins I live in Chicago and I love going to the shead Aquarium I understand I have to get my degree in marine biology witch is my PHD but I also understand that I need a intern ship at the aquarium when I’m 16 can I apply for a job as a assistent to a trainer while I’m finishing high school and after I get my degree in biology I can become a trainer or do I need to Waite for the offer and continue being a assistent until there is a job opening?

      • 11 National Aquarium April 1, 2014 at 5:11 pm

        Hi Rocio! It really just depends on the organization. Internships and volunteer positions are a great way to learn more about the field of work and what organizations are looking for in terms of hiring full-time positions!

  5. 12 Tina Williams June 20, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    My 16 year old daughters dream is to be a Dolphin Trainer. She has wanted this since the age of 3 when she watched a TV documentary on dolphins. She is presently starting her junior year of high school. She is in a magnet school studying Environmental Science. She was going to try to get an internship with the aquarium but they just recently switched the requirements from being a high school student to being a college student. Is there any specific advice that you can offer her? Point her in any direction for volunteer services for her age? Recommend any colleges of which she should apply? etc, etc?

    • 13 National Aquarium June 20, 2013 at 12:07 pm

      Hi Tina!

      Thanks for reaching out to us. We’d love to connect you both with our marine mammal staff here and hopefully they can give your daughter some guidance! Please email us at social@aqua.org and we’ll pass your contact info/questions along!

  6. 15 Lauren June 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Hi Allison, thank you for the great post! I’ve always been curious about how your dolphins understand which whistle bridges their behavior when there are multiple dolphins and trainers working simultaneously. Do you ever have issues with the dolphins responding to the wrong whistle?

    Also do you have any favorite books or resources for learning positive reinforcement/clicker training that you would recommend? Thank you!

    • 16 Allison Ginsburg June 20, 2013 at 3:50 pm

      Hi Lauren,
      Thanks for your question and your interest in how we work with our amazing animals. Communication is key when working with and trying to convey messages to our animals. This same communication is just as important when we as a team of trainers work together. First let me briefly explain the whistle to our readers that are not familiar with what it means; the whistle or what we call the bridge lets the animal know they have done the behavior correctly. In addition it communicates precise information that is correct such as the speed of a swim, the height of a jump and the location where it should occur. The formal definition is that a bridge closes the gap in when a behavior is performed correctly and reinforcement (such as fish, toys or rubs) will be delivered.
      As the animals are all conditioned to respond to the same whistle we will ensure that only one trainer bridges at a time especially if multiple animals are doing the same behavior. We call this cross bridging which means that a trainer can accidently bridge another animal working with another trainer. In training sessions we work together as a team and form a plan so that we take turns. Also anytime a trainer is going to want to bridge we ask the other trainers or inform that we are getting ready to blow the whistle.
      As far as my favorite books my top one would be Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor and also Animal Training by Ken Ramirez.
      Allison

  7. 17 Cassaundra Drake June 20, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    I’m about to graduate next year with an associates, but my goal is to become a Marine Biologist. What university did you attend? I often hear that chemistry, which happens to be something I’m struggling with, is extrememly important when it comes to marine biology. Do you think its important to be an expert in courses like chemistry and physics? I also saw you mentioned internships at the aquarium, could you provide a link? That would be great. Also, does the aquarium have opportunities for the public to shadow/assist an employee (marine mammologist to be specific)? I know I’m asking a lot of questions (laughs) but I just get really excited when it comes to this type of stuff. Thank you in advance!

    • 18 Allison Ginsburg June 24, 2013 at 10:48 am

      Hi Cassaundra,

      Thank you for your questions. I attended Drake University in Iowa, which is of course not anywhere near water! My degree is in Psychology and I personally did not take any physics courses. Psychology and Biology are the two strongest paths to take in acquiring a general degree if your University does not offer Zoology which many do not. To clarify though Marine Mammal trainers are not Marine Biologists but more of Behaviorists.
      Many facilities offer internships around the country as well as in the Caribbean. If you go on to http://www.IMATA.org which is the International Marine Animal Trainers Association you can gain even more insight into the field and its requirements. For the National Aquarium please go on to http://www.aqua.org for specific information regarding our programs here.

      Hope that helps and good luck,
      Allison

  8. 19 Margot June 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    What made you decide to be a dolphin trainer?

    • 20 Allison Ginsburg June 24, 2013 at 10:51 am

      Hi Margot,

      I have always had a love and passion for animals and at an early age knew that I wanted to work with animals in some capacity. As a child I had the opportunity to visit many facilities around the country where I had the chance to speak with trainers and watch the interaction they had with the animals and knew that I wanted to have that as well. I am very lucky to be living out my dreams everyday!

      Allison

  9. 21 Hanah June 20, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Hi Allison!

    I’m going to be a senior at Towson University this fall and I’m double majoring in biology and animal behavior. I just recently applied for the first time for the marine mammal training internship at the aquarium and unfortunately did not get accepted. I understand it’s extremely competitive, but I was just wondering if you had any suggestions for me that could maybe increase my chances of being selected in the future ?

    Thank you for your time !

    • 22 National Aquarium June 27, 2013 at 5:44 pm

      Thanks for the question, Hanah! As Allison has mentioned, any connections and/or collaborations you can make with peers and those already in the field always help! Sometimes, those connections can be made through volunteering or even attending lectures/talks!

  10. 23 Tracy June 20, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Thanks for the great post! My daughter dreams of being a trainer, although her passion is for beluga whales! Do you have any advice for her-she would love to be involved in volunteer/internship opportunities!
    Tracy

    • 24 National Aquarium June 27, 2013 at 5:48 pm

      Thanks for the question, Tracy! First, we’d say it’s important for her to pursue a degree in biology/zoology/animal sciences. Any additional experience (volunteer or internship) with marine mammals would certainly help your daughter achieve her goal of becoming a trainer!

  11. 25 becky June 21, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    thank you for the information it was very helpful. dolphin training has always been a dream of mine and my life revolves around dolphins/whales. i started to get my scuba certification but i couldnt complete it because i have epilepsy and my doctor wouldnt clear me. do you know if there is a way to still work with marine mammals but doesnt require scuba cert.?

    • 26 National Aquarium June 27, 2013 at 5:46 pm

      Thanks for the question, Becky! There are still many opportunities to work with marine mammals through research/behavior study that doesn’t necessarily include being a trainer at an organization like ours! Our team works with psychologists and researchers from across the country to help facilitate studies.

  12. 27 Stephanie Faye Rogerson June 21, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Hi, loved reading through your article. A question I do have is do you have any further advice on how you are able to secure experience or internships? I am a UK student studying zoo biology, our course enables us a gap year for us to gain this hands on experience we require. At this moment I am finding it very difficult to find willing facilities to take me on as an intern. Thank you for your time.

    • 28 National Aquarium June 27, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      Hi Stephanie! Thanks for the question. Are you specifically looking for opportunities in the UK or abroad? It can certainly be harder to secure internships abroad. Certainly for candidates looking to intern with us here at the Aquarium, we look at desired degree and any extra-curricular or volunteer experience!

  13. 29 Alison June 21, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Hello Allison! My dream has always been to become a dolphin trainer since I was younger. I am currently in college and I want to know what I can do to gain experience. I applied for volunteering at the Shedd Aquarium but they said that they aren’t looking for volunteers. I would apply for an internship but I messed up my first semester of college and I don’t think I would be accepted. What do you recommend I can do to gain experience?
    Thank you!

  14. 32 Kristen June 21, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    I am actually a zookeeper with gorillas and I am lucky enough to also get to work with sea lions.

    I am scuba certified and was wondering how hard it would be to switch to dolphin training?

    Would I need to ontern again or I h ave seen abc animal training workshop for a week with dolphins.

    Is that considered good experience?

    Thanks!

    • 33 National Aquarium June 27, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      That’s a great question, Kristen! Having experience working with animals is really key. As I’m sure you know through your own work as a zookeeper, marine mammal training/research is a competitive field! The attainability of transitioning into that role is really dependent on how many positions/organizations are available in your area!

  15. 34 Lisa Belgrove June 22, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    My daughter has her bachelor’s in Marine Bio. She is also finishing her certification in vet tech to help her get hands on experience. Any advice to help get into the Marine field. She is looking towards rehab and rehabilitation. Any help would be great. Lisa

    • 35 National Aquarium June 27, 2013 at 4:41 pm

      Thanks for the question, Lisa! As Allison mentioned in her post, sometimes the best way to start gaining experience in the field is through a volunteer/internship position (like we have here at the Aquarium!). It’s a great way to get a better sense of how these jobs really work and to make connections with future colleagues!

  16. 36 Michael Guest June 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    My dream job is working with animals. Gaining new skills and experience is very helpful.

  17. 37 Michael Guest June 25, 2013 at 9:25 am

    What are the levels of trainers?

    • 38 National Aquarium June 27, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      Thanks for the question, Michael. Here at the Aquarium, we have assistant marine mammal trainers, marine mammal trainers and our manager of mammal training, Allison!

  18. 39 Ericka August 9, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    What is the average age of a dolphin trainer? I’m 25 years old and working toward my Bachelors in Zoology, is there an age limit?

    • 40 National Aquarium September 9, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Hi Ericka!

      Sorry it took us a while to get back to you, we’ve been experiencing issues with WordPress showing us our comments lately!

      There’s no age limit per se. That said, it’s certainly important to demonstrate experience in the field, whether it’s through an internship or volunteer position!

      Hope this helps!

      • 41 Jamie Lea January 7, 2014 at 11:54 pm

        Is there an upper age limit? I worked as an animal trainer in my early 20′s but then went on to other things. I am now raising children in my late 30′s and am considering returning to the field in a few years. I would be in my 40s however, and I don’t want to set an unrealistic goal. No one publishes an upper “age limit”, obviously, but it seems most parks want very young smiling faces in wetsuits! I know how competitive this field can be, and am wondering if the reality of the situation is that my 40-something year old job application is going to be cast aside. I am looking for help in setting goals that really are attainable. Thank you.

      • 42 National Aquarium January 8, 2014 at 9:09 am

        Hi Jamie!

        We can at least speak to our organization in saying that age plays no part in deciding who is on our marine mammal team. We look for experience, a constant drive to learn more about the species and (above all else) a passion for providing the utmost quality of care!

  19. 43 Lacey Ousley November 5, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    I’m looking for some good advice on dolphin training. I’m currently a senior in Clanton, Alabama and I’m writing a report on the career I want to pursue. Like others, I have wanted and stuck with wanting to fulfill my life as a dolphin trainer. I’m currently having to write a report on the occupation I want, what steps I have to take to get there, and a college I’m interesting in going to. My original plan was to get my basics at a community college and transfer over to the Univeristy of South Alabama which is the only college in Alabama that can provide me with the courses I need. I did not realize though, how hard it would be to actually get the job I want. I wanted to be a trainer at Gulf World which is located in Panama City Beach, Florida. I’m willing to give my ALL to have my dreams come true. My heart fills with so much excitement when I just imagine doing my dream job. It has brought tears to my eyes many times that I have brought the topic up and discussed my passion to those around me, especially my science teachers. I’m not in it for the pay, this job has my full and undivided attention. I want it to be a lifestyle, I wouldn’t mind or regret working all the hours I could. I just want a job that I can actually look forward to, and be happy with. I know this is it. I’m asking PLEASE for all the help and support you could bring me.

  20. 44 Miguel December 7, 2013 at 12:20 am

    How often do trainer positions become available at the National Aquarium? How can I apply or where can I send my resume?

  21. 46 Macie December 10, 2013 at 1:21 am

    Hello my name is Macie Boutwell and I am a graduate student of 2013 from Oak Grove High School in Oak Grove, Louisiana. Animals are my passion and i have loved dolphins since I was very little. I dot know why but for some reason they just stood out to me from a very young age and i just knew i wanted to work with them, I knew they were very smart and graceful and I respected that from them. I love all exotic animals, especially lions, tigers, and yes bears but I’m very interested in all zoology programs, and marine biology and my heart is set on Florida i absolutely love Florida But i would have the honor in following my childhood dream and would love to have the chance to work with dolphins. Im a pipeliner fresh out of high school in May, but i would very much appreciate your response on what you think i could do to further in my choice of career. Thank you so much

    • 47 National Aquarium December 10, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      Hi Macie!

      We’re glad to hear that you’re interested in pursuing a career in the sciences! Our best advice is to get a degree in biology and/or animal science and look for internships at the Zoos/Aquariums in your area!

      Best of luck!

  22. 48 Lindsey January 5, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    Hi my daughter wants to work with dolphins but she is a good swimmer but can’t ever seem to hold her breath long enough. Her dream is to just always be around the dolphins, she is graduating high school next year.
    I was wondering if you had any advice for me to tell my daughter, like is there a job with dolphins where you dont have to hold your breath for long?
    Thank you

    • 49 National Aquarium April 1, 2014 at 5:16 pm

      Hi there!

      Direct care for marine mammals usually requires a dive certification and a general comfort with diving. However, there are many fields of marine mammal research that could be of interest to your daughter!

  23. 50 Haley January 11, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Hello,

    My name is Haley and I’m 17. I live in Muhlenberg county, KY. I’ve loved dolphins, sea horses, sea loins, pretty much any sea animal that won’t eat me, since I was born. I feel as if I have the ocean running through my body. It’s just like its part of me. Dolphins are my favorite animals and I have always wanted to work with them, and it would be my dream to be a trainer. If there is a trainer I could email about the job, the requirements, the schooling, etc about more deeply, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you.

  24. 51 Kalleana January 11, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    Hello! I was wondering what I should go to school for to become a dolphine trainer? I have always wanted to work with dolphins. So is your program a college or are they jobs?

    • 52 National Aquarium January 13, 2014 at 9:13 am

      Hi Kalleana!

      They are full-time positions within the Aquarium. You’ll need to get a degree before applying to become a trainer!

  25. 53 mina January 13, 2014 at 2:24 am

    Hi! I’m currently in a school where we train to become zookeepers. i was wondering if zookeepers can also become a dolphin trainer? I really love dolphins, sea lions, sharks, any sea mammal actually. T_T I really want to learn everything

    • 54 National Aquarium January 13, 2014 at 9:11 am

      Hi Mina! It really depends on the organization, but experience with marine mammals is always a plus!

      • 55 Mina January 13, 2014 at 11:30 am

        i reaaally want to volunteer there but I am South Korean and i think there are no visas for volunteers T.T i would love to volunteer for a year !!!

  26. 56 Samantha January 13, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    Do you have second jobs? Is the pay good?

    • 57 National Aquarium January 13, 2014 at 4:30 pm

      Thanks for the question, Samantha!

      While it’s certainly an exciting and competitive career path, it’s important to note that the National Aquarium (and many institutions like us) is a nonprofit organization.

      What unites and motivates us is the mission!

  27. 58 Zach January 28, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Hi, my name is Zach Lewis, and I’m fourteen years old. I’ve known I wanted to be a dolphin trainer for as long as I can remember. It is my absolute dream. Do you have any volunteer programs in the summer? I will be getting scuba certified this summer, I am a junior Olympic swimmer and I have about 60 hours of experience volunteering with animals, which will be increasing quickly (I usually work 8 hours or more a week). It would be a dream come true if you had any kind of opportunity for me to work with or around dolphins. Thank You

    • 59 National Aquarium January 29, 2014 at 9:19 am

      Hi Zach! Yes, we offer students of all ages opportunities to engage, volunteer and intern with the National Aquarium. Check out our programs here: http://ow.ly/t4jax

      • 60 Rita Saad March 6, 2014 at 7:36 pm

        Hi, my name is Rita and I’m seventeen years old. I feel in love with dolphins when I was six when I got to swim with one, and ever since then I have wanted to be a dolphin trainer. I have been wondering how long does it actually take to be come a dolphin trainer and what are the programs to get into to prepare you for it?

  28. 61 Tori Lashley February 28, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Hi my name is Tori Lashley. I’m 13 and I’ve been to Brookfield Zoo and I know I’ve always wanted to be a Dolphin Trainer and I want to know what is it like.

  29. 62 Zach March 8, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    What is the best way to get your foot in the door for a trainer job at National Aquarium? Interning? Volunteering? Working in another department?

    • 63 National Aquarium March 10, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      That’s a great question, Zach! Interning or volunteering with our staff is a great way to get your foot in the door at the Aquarium, or other institutions for that matter!

    • 64 National Aquarium March 17, 2014 at 1:36 pm

      Hi Zach! Volunteering and interning with marine mammal teams is a great way to gain relevant experience!

  30. 65 Rachel March 19, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Hi Allison!
    I am 18 years old and a Senior and I am from Pennsylvania. I really want to work with dolphins, train them and just interact with them and other marine life. I just need to be pointed in the right direction and was wondering what I need to study in college to be a marine mammal specialist and/or a dolphin trainer. I read that I need to be scuba certified but I just want to know what else I need. Like what do I need a degree in, etc.

  31. 66 Zach March 21, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I noticed the Marine Mammal Aide position on the jobs tab of your website. Is that a permanent position? If I am graduating college in May am I eligible to apply still?


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