Marine Mammal Trainer Career Profile
Marine mammal trainers use their knowledge of animal behavior to train and care for a variety of marine species.
Marine mammal trainers use operant conditioning (positive reinforcement techniques) to train the animals in their care. They also are responsible for providing appropriate physical and mental exercises to keep animals healthy and happy.
Other duties for marine mammal trainers may include diet preparation and feeding, keeping accurate health and behavior records, ensuring the habitat is properly maintained, and addressing the public during educational programs and demonstrations.
Additionally, trainers teach the animals behaviors that make it safer and easier to collect medical samples, perform exams, and administer medications. They usually assist the veterinarian with medical procedures and exams.
Marine mammal trainers must be physically fit and capable of working outdoors in changing weather conditions and extreme temperatures. It is common for trainers to be on call to work as needed on nights, weekends, or holidays. They may also be called into work to assist with sick or injured animals.
Marine mammal trainers may specialize in working with a specific type of marine mammals such as dolphins, whales, or seals and sea lions. Some trainers may spend a large portion of their time involved with public education or demonstrations, while others work primarily behind the scenes.
A marine mammal trainer may advance to supervisory positions, such as facility director or curator, though an advanced degree may be necessary for consideration at some institutions. There are also marine mammal training opportunities with the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program.
Education and Training
While a college degree is not mandatory, it is very difficult to become a marine mammal trainer without one. Common majors for marine mammal trainers include animal science, marine biology, animal behavior, zoology, psychology, and biology.
Another well known educational option is the Exotic Animal Training Management program at Moorpark College in California. This 7-day-a-week associate degree program is 22 months long and accepts about 50 students per year. Degree recipients have gone on to work at most of the major zoos, animal parks, and in Hollywood.
Marine mammal trainers may have prior practical experience from employment as a marine biologist or zookeeper. Aspiring trainers will usually volunteer or intern at a marine mammal facility to gain experience. Hands-on experience is essential for those seeking entrance to this field. Prior experience working as a dog trainer, veterinary assistant, or as a part of another animal related field is beneficial for those unable to gain experience specifically related to marine mammals.
Also, to a having both a degree and practical experience in the field, most marine mammal facilities require their trainer applicants to have strong swimming skills and proof of scuba diving certification.
Once hired, successful applicants must complete an intensive training course under the direction of experienced trainers. Trainees learn the training techniques and management methods of the facility. They also have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the facility’s animals and other members of the training team.
Many marine mammal trainers are members of a professional marine animal group such as the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA) or the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM). These groups provide members-only website access, industry publications, and job postings.
SimplyHired.com listed the average salary for marine trainers as $45,000 in 2011, though this is generally considered on the high end of the marine mammal trainer salary range.
While the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) does not separate marine mammal trainers out from the general category of animal trainers, a 2015 study found the mean annual animal trainer salary to be $33,600. The lowest ten percent of animal trainers earned less than $18,160 while the highest ten percent earned a salary of more than $57,170.
The three states with the highest number of available animal trainer jobs were California with 1,660 jobs, Florida with 1,330 jobs, and Illinois with 960 jobs. The mean annual salaries for these states were $37,720 in California, $37,370 in Florida, and $37,240 in Illinois.
There is extremely strong competition for marine mammal trainer positions nationwide. As relatively few new marine parks and aquariums open each year, the total number of marine mammal trainer positions is not expected to grow significantly. This fact, combined with the high level of interest in this career path, ensures a very high level of demand for any positions that should become available in the field.
It is also important for aspiring marine mammal trainers to realize that long-distance relocation is frequently necessary to secure a position in this field.