The most common question our team is asked is how to become a Marine Mammal Specialist. For me, being a Marine Mammal Specialist 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!
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 conditioning), 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.
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!