Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dolphins Versus Sea Lions: What Everyone Should Know

For the majority of my career, I've worked with dolphins.  Since January 2005 I've worked primarily with common bottlenose dolphins, mostly the coastal Atlantic variety.  Of course, as you've read in other posts, I've also had the pleasure of working with Pacific white-sided dolphins, one very spunky Atlantic spotted dolphin, nurse sharks, a cow-nosed stingray, North American river otters, and Clark's nutcrackers. 

Bottlenose dolphins are awesome

However, over the past nine months I've had the pleasure of working alongside animals of the pinniped variety.   I'm by no means declaring myself an expert, and in fact this may make this blog even funnier to people who really know pinnipeds.  

But California sea lions are pretty awesome, too!

There is a theme I've heard throughout my career about Dolphin Trainers versus Sea Lion Trainers.  Most of my coworkers past and present who have worked at a variety of facilities and have experienced both animals swear by this distinction.  There is a Dolphin Trainer Type and there is a Sea Lion Trainer Type. 

The more research I do* on this topic, the more I find that the  "Dolphin Trainer" is more of a type A personality, and the Sea Lion Trainer is more type B.  Now, I can't speak for anyone else.  I can tell you with certainty that despite being a dolphin trainer for 8 years, I do not identify with a type A personality.  Perhaps my bizarre brain activity can't be catalogued into the simple Dolphin versus Sea Lion trainer dichotomy.   I may be categorized as something like "Hyena Trainer" or "Partially Lobotomized Spider Monkey Trainer."   


But that is neither here nor there.  The difference between the two trainer types is really impossible to understand unless we look at the difference between the animals themselves.  I never felt qualified to make this blog post come to life before, simply because I hadn't worked with sea lions in my life.

But now I feel I've observed enough to share with you the major differences between dolphins and sea lions.  And then you can draw your own conclusions about the types of people who work with them :)

Difference #1:  POOP

Dolphin poop.  Is it ever really there?  Like the green flash at the horizon as the sun sets over calm waters, dolphin excrement is over before it begins.  It is washed away into the healing, blue water and is never acknowledged, nor smelled.   

Dolphin poop should be neither seen nor heard

Sea lion poop is like well, a big dog poo.  Not only that, but they leave them all over the place.  It is a little known fact that sea lions can sense where humans are (this does not apply just to animal trainers: think of San Francisco) and they Number Two in the precise downwind location, so the aroma is delivered straight to the "OH GOD GROSS" part of your brain.   Sea lion poop is excellent for such sea lion activities as: smearing it on the ground with your flippers.

As you've likely deduced, sea lions require a lot more habitat cleaning.  So you've gotta have a pretty strong stomach and just not care.  I mean let's face it, everybody poops**.  It's natural, it's a sign of good health, and it provides excellent bonding fodder when there's a really extra crappy day (ha ha). 

Plus, the worst experience with animal poo I've had to date was a dolphin.  Yes, a dolphin!  In the 0.00003rd of a second dolphins feces is a solid in the water, it attached to the end of my whistle unbeknownst to me.  Alas, when I went to blow my whistle…..



Dolphins have saliva, but the water washes it away.  In fact, it's like they live in a giant bath.  Their skin is clean, their poop dissolves, and even when they are a little drooly, that washes right away too.  The mucus coating on their eyes is transparent, and well….washes away.   The blowhole leads only to the lungs, the mouth to the stomach.  There are very few body fluids that can make it from dolphin to trainer. Oh, how clean are they, the dolphins!

Sea lions have a natural and beneficial bacterial coating on their teeth, which turns their teeth dark brown or black.  It turns the inside of their mouths and their saliva black as well.  Let's put it this way, sea lions basically have a stockpile of molasses-like mouth fun that they can choose to share with you with great verve.  If a sea lion needs to sneeze or is a little miffed, he or she will shoot small to medium-sized Globs of Healthy Oral Hygiene on your face and clothes.  Don't worry, it'll come off with steel wool and a blow torch.

Oh, look at that deliciousness


Dolphins swim gracefully in undulating strokes through the water (that cleans them of all their grossness), whistling lilting melodies.  Their rhythmic clicks are gentle on human ears.  

Unless you're in the water with them, the dolphins are a world away when you're in session with them.  They can leave you and you can leave them very easily.  This makes it easy when the dolphins start to give you the Middle Flipper.  You simply stand up and walk away, giving them the time they need to do be majestical Angels of the Sea. 

Sea lions may be graceful in the water.  But on land, they walk like bear with giant swim fins surgically fused to their hands and feet.  They skitter, stomp, slide, or inchworm their way hither and thither, making a SLAP SLAP SLAP SLAP sound.  And, since they are just fine getting around on land, they are in your dance space.  They may not look that spry, but they can out swim you AND outrun you (not fair)!

Their vocalizations can best be described as: Large Carnivorous Dinosaur In Moderate Distress.  There is no lovely-sounded sea lion song.  The best you can hope for is the Long Burp.

What's that sound? A pterodactyl? No, it's a sea lion.  

Let's put it all together in an imaginary conversation between trainer and animal, shall we?


Trainer: Alright, Flipper.  Let's do your daily visual exam.
Dolphin: That sounds satisfactory, provided the payoff is what we previously discussed.
Trainer: Of course.  And how was your evening last night?
Dolphin: It was quite satisfactory, thank you.  I appreciated the thorough scrubbing of my habitat.  May we appeal to your good nature to procure some time with basketballs between our performances?
Trainer: My pleasure!  I very much look forward to our interactions together.
Dolphin: As do I, human.  As do I.


Sea Lion: OMG TRAINER WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL NIGHT? I've been waiting here and waiting here just hoping that you'd come back so I can show you what I did to my room last night!
Trainer: Wow, that is a really nice painting.  Very abstract and modern.  What medium did you use?
Sea Lion: Poop, always poop.  SO WHAT ARE WE DOING TODAY?
Trainer: Oh, we're going to have so much fun.  We're going to do a training session, and then a show, and then a training session, and then a show, and then another show!
Sea Lion: YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE.
Trainer: Well, I gotta go now.
Trainer: Not now, but I'll be back, I promise.  Here, have some ice cubes.
Sea Lion: OKAY! Okay! Bye!!! I'LL BE RIGHT HERE WHEN YOU GET BACK!!!!!!!!!!!

So as you can see, there are very many differences between two of the more popular of marine mammals.  But I can tell you (proudly), that I love working with both equally.  Really.  Of course I've exaggerated (just slightly) some of the things sea lions and dolphins do or don't do.  There are some pretty disgusting things dolphins can do, and some very beautiful and graceful things sea lions do.  I don't know how you could pick a favorite animal if you work with multiple species.  They all have their merits.  And of course, no one is perfect (just don't tell the dolphins I said that).

* Highly scientific research using such techniques as Facebook messaging

** Except girls


  1. Oh come on, what's the most disgusting thing a dolphin will do? Although today I went to the GA aquarium and played slinky with Lily and Shaka (2 of my favs)and it was amazing, and then Lily swam around and pooped in front of the glass.. about the worst thing I can think of that they'll do! :) hahaha, I love them and want to be a trainer :)

  2. Oh, let me tell you. You know how they don't have a gag reflex? They will use that to their hilarious advantage (use your imagination). They will also just you know, let loose a poo stream while in a layout (the best is in a ventral layout). I guess it's good they feel relaxed enough to do that ;)

  3. Hahahaha :) but I seriously can't think what it is on the hilarious advantage part^^ ?

  4. I just came to your post and reading above thing it is very impressive me and it is very nice blog. Thanks a lot for sharing this.
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