How to Become a Marine Animal Trainer

Surfing a killer whale

Was your favorite part of visiting SeaWorld getting to see the marine animal trainers performing with their whales and sea lions?  If so, you just might enjoy working as a marine animal trainer yourself. Marine animal trainers work at aquariums, zoos, parks and other locations, and they are responsible for the care, feeding and training of dolphins, whales and other marine mammals. They put on public presentations which are both informative and entertaining, and help to educate the public on the behaviors, habitats and needs of these beautiful creatures.

1. What Do Marine Animal Trainers Do?

The duties of marine animal trainers include:

  • Keeping marine animals fed. Animal feed for marine mammals can weigh quite a bit, so you need to be in excellent physical shape to handle this aspect of the job.
  • Ensuring that marine animal living environments are safe, healthy, and comfortable. You will need to be an expert on water quality.
  • Training and studying marine mammals. You will be working closely with dolphins, whales and other marine mammals to teach them tricks. This offers you an amazing opportunity to study them closely and get involved in advanced research.
  • Performing and giving public presentations. The most glamorous part of being a marine animal trainer is putting on shows with your marine friends. Your public speaking skills, sense of humor and professional demeanor will all help to keep the public entertained and informed about the lives and habitats of marine mammals. This is essential for getting the public to join in conservation efforts and to respect marine life.

2. Work Environment

As a marine animal trainer, you could work in any one of a variety of environments. Many trainers work for zoos and aquariums. Others may be employed by theme parks. You will likely be working full time, and your job may require relocation. Because these jobs are uncommon, there is a good chance the only openings you find will be outside your city or state. Sometimes when an employer owns more than one facility, they may also ask their trainers to move from facility to facility on a regular basis. Flexibility is a must with this job! You also may find yourself working on weekends since most locations where marine mammal trainers work are open then!

3. Salary

According to Marine Animal Trainer, the starting wage for dolphin trainers is around $8.00 per hour (minimum wage), and may go as high as $35 per hour. The salary you earn is contingent largely on your experience. New trainers should expect to start low, and work their way up. While you can expect to earn more over time, chances are you will never make as much as $35 an hour. Very few marine mammal trainers make this much money. This is a job you pursue first and foremost because you love it and not because you are looking for a big wage. The type of animal you work with can make a difference too. Killer whale trainers typically make more than most other types of marine mammal trainers because their job is so intensive and carries more potential hazards.

4. Education and Training

To become a marine animal trainer, you must first obtain a bachelor’s degree, preferably in animal science, biology, zoology or marine biology. Going to a top marine biology school like the University of Hawaii, the University of North Carolina Wilmington or Duke University can give you an edge over other candidates who did not specialize and earned a degree in an unrelated field. Since this is an extremely competitive field, this is very important! There are a lot more marine animal trainer candidates than there are jobs. If an employer has to choose between a candidate who majored in history and a candidate who majored in marine biology, that is an easy decision.

Get involved in any internship or assistant trainer programs you can find while you are at school. You will need to apprentice before you can expect to get a job as an animal trainer. Volunteer if you have to. Hands-on experience working with animals is a must, even at the entry level. Work on getting a scuba diving certification while you are doing this.

5. Important Qualities

If you want to succeed as a marine mammal trainer, you must have the following skills and attributes:

  • Physically in shape. This is a demanding job which requires intensive physical labor. You will also be working with large, sometimes dangerous, animals. 
  • Expert knowledge of marine biology. You need to be an expert on marine mammals, their habitats, and their physical and emotional needs. It is up to you to keep them happy and healthy.
  • Creativity. It will be up to you to design the presentations which you put on for the public. You will need to be able to come up with programs which are both informative and fun.
  • A sense of humor. Part of your job is entertainment, so it helps to be able to make the audience laugh.
  • Public speaking skills. You will have to be able to communicate loudly and clearly during your presentation, and will need the professional demeanor to make a solid impression. Taking some drama or communication classes on the side while you are working toward your marine biology degree can help.
  • Compassion and enthusiasm. The most important quality for a candidate is a real love of marine mammals. You must be passionately dedicated to providing them with a healthy and happy life in captivity, and to educating the public to protect marine animals in the wild.

6. Career Development

Once you have started working as a marine animal trainer, your work really has just begun! You are not going to want to stay at minimum wage forever. In the beginning, you will probably be working as an assistant to a regular or senior animal trainer. Your goal is to become a regular trainer and eventually a senior trainer yourself. The following can all help you to move up the ladder:

  • Willingness to relocate. Whether you decide to stay with your current employer or not, a willingness to change cities or even states can help you climb.
  • Build experience with a single employer. If possible, you may want to stick with one employer, especially if you have landed a position with a large facility. An animal trainer who has experience working with the animals at that facility is more valuable than a trainer from another facility. You will know their personalities and quirks, which will help you to get promoted to a senior trainer position.
  • Get a scuba diving certification if you do not have one yet.
  • If your employer offers workshops, attend as many as possible. Demonstrate how hard you are working to learn and advance. Also look into joining a professional organization like IMATA.

7. Job Opportunities

Typical employers for marine animal trainers include:

  • Theme parks like SeaWorld 
  • Aquariums
  • Zoos
  • Research facilities

The larger facilities typically pay the highest wages, and may also offer you more options when it comes to relocation. They may also provide more opportunities for ongoing education through workshops and other programs.

See also:  Jobs for Animals Lovers

Becoming a marine animal trainer means making a commitment to pursue a long, hard career path.  Many people dream of working with whales, dolphins, and sea lions, but there are limited opportunities to work in this incredible role.  For a passionate, dedicated, determined candidate, though, it could prove to be a deeply rewarding and enriching career.