Aquafacts / Training Marine Mammals

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AquaFacts contain information on the Aquarium animals or other Aquarium-related topics. We’ve compiled the most popular questions about training marine mammals. Please email our librarian for other inquiries.

Quick info

Months and years

How long it takes to train a marine mammal

30 mins

Maximum length for a training session

Waterproof clothing

Proper training attire

Rain boots

Proper training attire

Whistles

Instrument to train whales

Why do you train marine mammals?

Marine mammals at Vancouver Aquarium require a great deal of specialized care—this is especially true for belugas and dolphins that are wholly aquatic. Training is a way for us to communicate with them and to build a trusting relationship. Training allows our professional team to convey simple messages that result in voluntary and cooperative body examinations, the taking of blood, body temperature, ultrasound, dental checks and eye exams. Our interactions are customized for each animal and vary for health care, exercise, socialization, science, learning, education and play. It also enables scientists to conduct vital research, such as the echolocation (sound) study now underway to help us understand how Pacific white-sided dolphins navigate underwater using sound and why they continue to get entangled in fishing nets.

How do you get a whale to do what you want?

Training is done by "classical conditioning." A bridge stimulus, such as a whistle, is an immediate feedback to let the whale know the behaviour is correct. The whistle is paired with a reinforcer, which is anything that increases the behaviour - something that the whale enjoys, whether it's food, a rub-down, ice cubes or being sprayed with the hose (like a massage for them). The whistle is associated with the reinforcement and the animal does the behaviour to obtain this reinforcement.

Before this, they are taught to follow a target (either a trainer's hand or a target pole as an extension of the arm) as a focal point. It helps to direct the whale to a position or in a direction. In the beginning, the trainer would touch the target to the whale. The trainers blow the whistle and reinforce the animal. It could take several days to get the whale to understand that the trainer wants them to touch the target. Next, the target is positioned a few inches away from the whale and the trainers wait for the whale to touch it. The whale knows that when they touch the target they get reinforced, so they move toward the target. The target is moved further and further away until the whale is following the target. Now the target can be used to lead the whale through small steps of a behaviour.

How are the seals, sea lions and sea otters trained?

The Steller sea lions and harbour seals are primarily trained for husbandry (healthcare) behaviours, but are also trained to voluntarily participate in research. The Steller sea lions are trained to lie still while researchers take measurements of their bodies, to swim on a swimmill to check their energy levels, or to wear a special camera "backpack" to record the activities of trained Steller sea lions as they swim through the ocean beside a research vessel. Through this work, the Aquarium in partnership with the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium is hoping to learn more about the declining population of wild Steller sea lions.

What equipment do trainers use to train the marine mammals?

While training above the water they wear waterproof clothing and rain boots (although depending on the season and time of year they will wear a variety of different gear to keep themselves dry and warm, and to keep from slipping on submerged surfaces. They also always have their whistles around their necks. A target pole, which acts as an extension of the trainer's arm, may be used for the more high-energy behaviours or behaviours that require the animal to be well out of arm’s reach. When behaviours progress in development, trainers will switch out the target pole for ice cubes that can also serve as a target when tossed at the water; they create the ripples on the water which serves as a water target for the animals to swim to/jump out of the water at. Trainers may also use enrichment devices or toys during training sessions to get the animals used to new toys or perhaps even to use the toys in new behaviours in the future.

For more information, contact our librarian:

Phone: 604-659-3404
Email: library@ocean.org