About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about becoming a marine mammal trainer. The answers come from our dedicated and passionate marine mammal trainers . If you have a question about this career that’s not addressed in this page or the references below, please feel free to email our librarian.
What kind of university or college courses should I take if I am considering a career as a Marine Mammal Trainer?
To become a marine mammal trainer, you should take as many of the science courses as possible in high school and in the first year of university. The basic requirement to be a trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium is a Bachelor of Science degree – which will take a minimum of four years to obtain. However, the most important way to prepare for this career is to have practical animal experience. Previous experience working with animals could be at veterinary clinics, pet stores, farms, or in aquariums or zoos. Successful candidates, in addition to having some previous history interacting with animals, will have good public speaking abilities and people skills. The ability to think clearly, quickly and with common sense are helpful traits. You should also be a certified diver and possess a valid driver’s license.
How can I get experience?
A good way to start pursuing a career as a trainer is to volunteer. Any volunteer work with animals can help you to become a marine mammal trainer. Volunteering at the Aquarium can allow you to gain valuable knowledge in the daily routine of a trainer.
What kind of responsibility do marine mammal trainers have?
Since four or five trainers work with a group of animals at one time, each trainer should be able to work as part of a team. The ability to communicate with other trainers is essential because everyone needs to know how the animals are doing. The trainers work with all the marine mammals at the Aquarium, making their work environment varied and challenging. All trainers are required to be on-call 24 hours a day, so you should carefully consider the commitment needed to become a trainer.
What is a typical day like for a marine mammal trainer?
Marine mammal trainers are responsible for the animal’s mental and physical health. Apart from the actual training, trainers must keep up-to-date records about the animals, prepare food, clean habitats, perform general maintenance duties, interact with the public, give interviews, answer letters, give trainer tours, do enrichment with the animals and carry out training discussions.
Interview With A Marine Mammal Trainer: Brian Sheehan
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy the relationship that we develop with the animals. I like developing the trust and respect that is so essential to working with these animals. It's great to be out with the animals, working so closely with them.
What is the level of education and/or training required to be a marine mammal trainer?
Generally, most people require a Bachelor of Science degree. This degree could be in something like zoology, biology, psychology, or marine biology. Some trainers may instead have an Animal Health Technician degree from a technical school. Also, scuba certification and experience is a mandatory part of the job.
Is there a lot of competition to be a marine mammal trainer?
While working with marine mammals in an aquarium is a fascinating and rewarding career, it is one that is difficult to get started in. There are only two aquariums in Canada that house marine mammals, and the competition for those few positions is fairly stiff. There are work opportunities in the U.S. and around the world, but again, there is a lot of competition. It is also fairly unlikely that there will be many new aquariums built over the next 10 years or so.
Do you get to travel with your job - to engage in research or attend seminars?
There are some opportunities for travel (trainer conferences and so on) and sometimes the opportunity to participate in research with wild animals. Again, this would depend on the aquarium. Also, there is more travel involved with animal rehabilitation programs.
What related high school subjects would benefit in preparation for this career?
I think that all subjects in some way benefit us in the future, but the most important ones in this field would be biology and chemistry. Work experience programs provide excellent opportunities to see what being a marine mammal trainer is all about. It also helps to be involved in a variety of courses and extracurricular activities. It is important that trainers are well rounded, both academically and physically.
What are your major job duties/responsibilities?
My responsibilities as a trainer include preparing food, feeding the animals, training behaviours, working with animals for training sessions and research, observing animals, providing behavioural information to veterinarians, leading interpretation sessions with the public, recording animal behaviour and food intake, assisting in maintaining the animal’s habitat (mostly cleaning) and husbandry (health care).
What are the least appealing aspects of your job?
There is a great deal of cleaning and scrubbing that has to be done each day. All of our food preparation areas must be spotless. A trainer may spend only half of his workday interacting with the animals. The rest of the time we are completing the many other tasks that are involved with the job.
What are the working conditions like?
We work outside every day regardless of weather. It’s nice when it’s warm and sunny but it can be pretty miserable during the winter when it’s cold and wet. We can work long hours (all night, sometimes) and we have to come into the Aquarium every single day, which means that some of us work on Christmas, New Year’s and Easter.
What special skills are needed to work with the marine mammals?
Trainers should have a love of animals, a great deal of patience, ability to interact with the public, a calm and even disposition, and a love of water. A good trainer is a logical thinker and has the ability to explain things to others.
If I can't get a job as a marine mammal trainer because of competition, where else might I work?
Animal trainers can work in zoos or game farms, or help out in research with wild animals (observations, photo-identification, etc.).
Glen, Thomas B. 1997. The Dolphin and Whale Career Guide. Omega Publishing Division. Chicago.
Marine Mammal Staff of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.
Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.