My life as a dolphin trainer
The first thing I want you to know about me is that I LOVE being a coach! I love marine mammals and have a special passion for helping educate people about them. When the public connects with the animals I help train, it raises awareness about the health of the world’s oceans and helps all marine life.
Training is all about communication, being clear and precise. A good workout is also motivation and fun! Highly intelligent animals are highly motivated to have mental and physical problems, and it is a very important part of designing a healthy lifestyle for them.
What I love the most is the “aha” moment. This is the moment when an animal achieves what you want it to do through successive approximations: training steps that lead to the target behavior. When the animal does it for the first time, it is incredibly rewarding to share that moment of understanding between the two of you. That “aha” moment is priceless! Of course, this process can take minutes or even months, depending on the animal and what you are teaching it to do.
Dolphins, in particular, are highly motivated to learn new things. It is excellent for your mental and physical stimulation.
My life as a coach
Even when I was little, I always wanted to help injured animals. When I was 10 years old, I found a pelican, covered in tar, on the beach and I brought it to my mom, who helped me take it to the bird sanctuary for treatment and release. As a teenager, I volunteered to clean the beaches near my home in Santa Barbara, California. I became a member of various wildlife rescue organizations and adopted pets from the Humane Society. I counted whales and dolphins from a seaplane with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and volunteered with the Channel Island Marine & Wildlife Institute, helping to rescue sea lions and seals. I canoed the Snowdrift River in the Northwest Territories and saw musk oxen in their natural habitat. I have always loved animals and being in nature.
I began my journey as a marine mammal trainer at Moorpark’s Exotic Animal Training and Management (EATM) Program in 1999. Immediately upon graduation, I began working as a trainer for Bud and Jo Krames when they started their own company, Dolphin Fantaseas, in Antigua, West Indies.
In May 2004, Dolphin Discovery bought Dolphin Fantaseas and I became part of a new team. It was a fabulous opportunity to become a stronger coach and a way to learn different techniques to become a better asset to the team. After six months on Tortola, I was sent to Oahu’s Sea Life Park, which Dolphin Discovery had just bought. I was one of four trainers chosen to help train the animals and staff in the Dolphin Discovery style of programs. A few months later, I was sent to help start Sea Life Park Mexico. I spent five wonderful months in Puerto Vallarta, where the Director of Training for all of the Dolphin Discovery facilities and I created and trained for a show in just five days.
It was in Puerto Vallarta that I worked with a male South American sea lion for shows and a female for the interactive sea lion program with guests. It was Dolphin Discovery’s first work with this species. This was a tremendous experience and it really boosted my development as a coach. I had a great supervisor who really helped me grow and believe in myself, and as a result, I felt much more confident in my abilities as a trainer and as a teacher. During this time I was promoted to the position of Senior Trainer.
After Sea Life Park was up and running successfully, I was transferred back to the Cancun area. I worked both in Cozumel and in Puerto Aventuras. When Hurricane Wilma struck in October 2005, I got a crash course in hurricane planning and execution when I helped evacuate all twenty-three dolphins, four sea lions, and several macaws, toucans, and sloths. I, along with four other trainers and the vet, stayed at the hotel where we had transported the animals to ensure their safety during and after the hurricane. There, we weathered four days of the largest hurricane ever recorded in the area. It was a terrifying experience for everyone, but I decided to stay in Cozumel out of loyalty to Dolphin Discovery and the animals in my care. I can’t imagine having made a different decision. CNN had reported that the water would flood the island, but a few days later we were able to transport the animals to the Puerto Aventuras facility. It was extraordinary to be one of the key people responsible for such a complex operation, and on a ferry no less! But there I was, training a one-year-old baby dolphin who was way behind in training, working with dolphins that were experiencing aggression problems, and training new staff. Shortly thereafter, I was promoted to Cozumel Team Advisory Coach.
In October 2008, I started working for Dolphin Cove in Jamaica and went to work in Ocho Rios to meet the six dolphins that we would take by private plane to Grand Cayman Island two months later. My goals in Jamaica were to learn the style of the interactive programs at Dolphin Cove, as well as the hand signals they assigned to each behavior. He also wanted to build a relationship with the animals to make it easier for the dolphins to transition to their new home. It always helps to have a familiar face when you move to a new place! It turned out that we moved only four dolphins to Grand Cayman (Ziggy, Nemo, Lucea, and Luna) because one had become pregnant. Pepe and Sally were transported a few months later.
Years have passed and I am truly enjoying my experience here at Dolphin Cove, where I am the Animal Care, Training and Operations Manager.
The majority of our clientele at Dolphin Cove comes from cruise ships. However, we also receive some hotel guests and others who live on the island. Our facility is very large and is part of a pond attached to the North Sound. There are many marine creatures that share the lagoon with the dolphins. Nemo and Ziggy often find wandering octopuses looking for a new home. (And we routinely select crab body parts when we brush Ziggy’s teeth in the morning!) Dolphins get restaurant-quality fish, but sometimes they hunt for fun. It is not just part of their natural behavior; it is also very enriching for them.
My thoughts on using animals for therapy
I have come to believe that animals and water are a unique cure for human beings. From a trainer’s perspective, a great way to help others is to have a motivated topic, and what is more motivating than having the opportunity to interact with a dolphin in warm water? Dolphin therapy is still new to me. Not everyone likes the idea, but I have seen it first hand, and my answer is this: if it helps people to live happier and more fulfilling lives, and it is pleasant and stimulating for the dolphin, how can it be? bad? Frankly, I LOVE IT !!!
It’s about prevention. Cleanliness and accurate records and communication are crucial. It’s about getting to know your animals and noticing the slightest difference in behavior or attitude.
Dolphins are actively involved in their own medical care. They are all trained to allow us to collect urine, fecal matter, blow and swab samples, gastric samples and blood, all on a voluntary basis. This training and the voluntary participation of dolphins reduces stress because the animal has control over its environment and the option to help us take care of it. The key is to make the experience very positive and rewarding.
If I had a wish:
I wish I could have a sitting conversation with an animal. I would love to hear what they have to say and how they really feel. It is very tempting to anthropomorphize what highly intelligent animals really think and feel. For now, I have to be satisfied with what the animals tell me through their behavior. I really try to listen and observe, and not force my will or beliefs on them.
Why did I become a coach?
I became a trainer because I love animals. Of course, it goes way beyond that. I want to create the best possible life for animals under human care, as well as help animals in nature. As a marine mammal trainer, I can do both. I feel that the animals in my care are ambassadors for those who live in the wild in the oceans. The close interaction and exposure our dolphins provide help people connect with wildlife and nature. This can provide the motivation that people need to alter their lifestyles in ways that help the environment and all the animals we share the planet with.
Human beings connect with and preserve the things that matter to them. So what better way to connect than to touch, learn and experience marine mammals in close proximity? This also helps people respect all wild animals and protect their habitats. Marine mammals in human care also give us the ability to learn about them and how best to help them if they need rehabilitation after a stranding or environmental disasters like oil spills. It is an amazing feeling to take care of an animal back to health and to see it fully recover and return to the ocean! We would not know how to achieve this if we did not have animals under human care.
I don’t think it’s better for animals to be dead than under human care. That said, the marine mammal industry is always evolving. Every day we learn more, and therefore we are able to provide the animals in our care with both the love and the environment they need to thrive. As providers of care, we work together and share skills and experience. This helps us to have an even greater connection with our animals and accomplish things we never thought possible with marine mammals. Simply put, animals never cease to amaze! We are incredibly fortunate to share experiences with them and witness their extraordinary abilities.