How to Become a Dolphin Trainer: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a dolphin trainer. Research the job description and the education requirements, and find out how to start a career in dolphin training.

Should I Become a Dolphin Trainer?

Dolphin trainers are responsible for keeping the dolphins healthy, mentally stimulated and physically active while living in a captive environment. Trainers are often responsible for keeping the tank clean and providing nutritious meals. Although programs at zoos or aquariums use dolphins for public entertainment, they also usually try to incorporate a message of conservation awareness for dolphins and other marine mammals. Trainers may do this by providing commentary about dolphins and their habits during public shows. Work hours may be irregular since care is needed around the clock. Dealing with sick or injured dolphins is usually the most difficult aspect of this job.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Fields Biology, marine biology, zoology, animal science
Certification CPR, first aid, scuba diving
Experience Animal handling experience; senior-level trainer positions might require multiple years of work experience in the field
Key Skills Swimming, communication, public speaking
Salary (2014) $25,770 per year (Median for animal trainers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, SeaWorld, O*Net Online.

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

Zoos and aquariums usually require that entry-level trainer applicants have bachelor's degrees. Because there are no undergraduate programs specifically in dolphin training, employers typically seek candidates with a degree in a life science, such as biology, zoology, marine biology or other animal-related fields.

These programs usually include courses in foundational sciences like biology, chemistry and physics. High-level mathematics may also be required. Courses specifically related to animals include animal behavior, zoology, and marine mammalogy and physiology. Oceanography, marine ecology, evolution and conservation courses are typically incorporated into marine biology programs.

Success Tips:

  • Gain experience with animal handling. Experience working with animals is a crucial element for a career path in dolphin training. Many zoos and aquariums have volunteer and internship programs for students to learn animal care and husbandry.. Although rare, internships exist where students can shadow dolphin trainers and assist in daily care duties. Interns, however, are not typically allowed to have hands-on contact with dolphins. Animal handling opportunities are also available at humane societies and wildlife rehabilitation centers. Some internships may count as college credit and provide an hourly wage.
  • Gain skills in communication and public speaking. An important aspect of a dolphin trainer's job is educating the public about dolphins and marine conservation. This may be done by talking with zoo or aquarium visitors directly or by providing commentary over a microphone to a large group of spectators. Students may gain experience by adding drama and public speaking courses to their undergraduate education.

Step 2: Earn Scuba Certification

Many aquariums or zoos with marine mammals require their animal trainers to be scuba certified. Individuals can complete basic scuba diver certification or take additional courses to gain certification as rescue divers or master scuba divers. The first portion of most basic scuba courses involves classroom or online courses, along with tests. The final part involves the applied portion of the training, where students learn how to use scuba equipment in a pool and/or in open water locations, among other skills.

Success Tip:

  • Become certified in CPR and first aid. Some scuba programs also provide training in CPR and first aid. Since all three of these skills are required by many marine mammal facilities, completing such a program may allow aspiring dolphin trainers to learn all these skills in a short amount of time and in environments relevant to their future career.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Depending on where and how much experience was acquired, trainers may begin by shadowing more experienced trainers or complete a training period before they are allowed to perform more complex behavior training with the dolphins. Trainers can advance to senior-level positions as they get to know the dolphins under their care and as training techniques are refined and mastered. Trainers might work in aquarium settings or in a natural ocean environment.

Success Tip:

  • Keep swimming skills up-to-date and stay physically fit. Dolphin trainers must be able to handle the demanding physical activity their career requires, both for practical and safety reasons. Trainers should keep their swimming skills in top form so they can safely interact with their animals and possibly perform acrobatics alongside dolphins.

Step 4: Join a Professional Organization

Marine mammal trainers and animal keepers may join organizations, such as the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) or the International Marine Animal Trainers' Association (IMATA). Members have opportunities to read current news and literature about the field, make professional connections with other trainers and attend voluntary continuing education workshops.

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