Dolphin trainer

The drums beat louder, the music quickens, a dolphin leaps high out of the water, twists in the air and dives back in with a splash! The crowd claps and cheers, the dolphin trainers in their blue wetsuits wave goodbye to the audience who exit the stadium with big smiles on their faces! The shows are finished for the day and the fun part of being a dolphin trainer is over until tomorrow.

A dolphin trainer works in the cold room to defrost the fish for the dolphins

Being a dolphin trainer involves more than waving at the crowd and swimming with dolphins. It starts early in the morning – at 05h00 for the trainer on early morning kitchen duty. A member of the team comes in to start preparing fish for the dolphins’ breakfast – 70 kilograms of fish needs to be defrosted, cut and placed in buckets for the first feed alone. The rest of the team comes in at 07h30, when rigorous training sessions for the day get under way. Each dolphin is put through its paces to reinforce natural behaviour which comprises movements displayed in the shows.

Floors have to be scrubbed clean, the walls of the pools need to be scrubbed, food boxes and lids need to be disinfected and kept meticulously clean and the kitchen has to be cleaned and sanitised.

A marine mammal vet and microbiologist are on hand to assist trainers to proactively care for the dolphins and maintain their good health. The vet assists the trainers with various procedures such as ultrasound, X-rays and analysing various samples such as faeces, urine and blood. The trainers work hard to teach the dolphins to allow the vet to take these samples with the animal’s permission. The dolphins are even taught how to lie still while the vet draws blood samples. The needle prick hurts the dolphins just like it does when we give blood samples. Yet the trainers and dolphins have great bonds of trust between them based on hours of practising these types of procedures. This has a great bearing on the successful husbandry of these incredible animals.

The dolphin trainers are a members of a team. On any given day, some may be involved in staff training sessions that include "speech and drama", "water chemistry", "psychology of animal training" or "animal nutrition". Others will busy themselves by providing the dolphins with enrichment to keep them stimulated in their environment. The seniors and curator are in contact with dolphin trainers around the world to ensure that our methods are always the most current and effective.

Throughout the day, and particularly at the end of the day, the trainers sit around a table and fill in checklists to record food consumption, show performance, medication, training, toys and medical procedures for each dolphin. Dolphin trainers need to be fit because much of their work involves running around to lift and drop very heavy gates which separate the pools. They are put through tough swimming tests because water-based activities are an integral part of their duties.

Dolphin training is a fun, wet and fishy business

Meetings are held every week to discuss the progress and wellbeing of each dolphin. Staff training and research is a regular weekly feature and in-house exams and assessments are done to allow trainers to proceed to the next level as an animal behaviourist.

At the end of the day as the last checklists are being filled in and the nightshift handover is complete, the trainers hang their wetsuits out to dry and head home or to the gym. Others choose to sit outside and chat about the day’s events over a cup of coffee or they might have to wait for the night rehearsal for an upcoming special show. A volunteer might also have to report for baby watch to keep an eye on a new baby dolphin which needs round-the-clock monitoring for the first six weeks of its life. One of the trainers will sleep in the trainers’ office just in case the volunteer experiences a problem with the dolphin.

A day at the office for a dolphin trainer involves many long, cold, wet and smelly hours – but the trainers tell you that it is all worthwhile and that they feel very privileged to work with such amazing animals.

A Bachelor of Science degree or a degree in speech and drama is recommended for any aspiring dolphin trainer. In-house training is provided, but hard work, the ability to function as part of a team, and total dedication are the keys to success as a dolphin trainer.