Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Crown Jewel Of Marine Mammal Training, and How I Earned My First Whistle

There are many tangible items that complete the marine mammal trainer look.  

1) The Boots 

Boots: Great Protector from Frightful Fish Boxes and Pinniped Poop

2) The Visor or Baseball Hat 

Hey man, I want sun protection

3) The Wetsuit

Wetsuits are not only great for thermoregulation, but for capturing all the smells of your profession!

4) The Sunglasses


What am I forgetting?  Anyone, regardless of their affiliation (or lack thereof) to the field can answer that.  Why?  Because the crown jewel of the marine mammal field is:


*Insert Chorus Of Angels Here*

Oh, glorious whistle.  How I gazed upon thee as a youngster and wanted so badly to proudly display you around my neck so that I could, without any words at all, declare my profession.  Before I even know what the heck it actually did, I knew it communicated something to the animals.  And communicating with animals was my ultimate dream (well, it still is).

What is so special about The Whistle?  Is it plated in the finest silver, mined from Middle Earth and passed down from the great Elvish Kings of Rivendell?  Does its very sound resonate throughout the universe, speaking to all creatures great and small in all realms of earths and heavens?  

"I want an official ACME 535, silver-plated,  adjustable-frequency dolphin trainer whistle!"

The whistle is such a coveted item in aspiring marine mammal trainers that sometimes it is used in bloodthirsty ego battles at places such as: swim tests and the Internet.  When I was in high school, I remember seething with jealousy when I saw a photo on an online forum of a girl wearing a whistle at a Trainer For A Day program.  

But as I got older and learned what the whistle actually did, it became less of a magical totem.  It transformed into one of many career goals I'd set for myself, because using a whistle bridge correctly is a fundamental skill required to make any progress in this field.  Regardless, while I and several other colleagues gained a more mature understanding of The Whistle, we were still privy to the catty (albeit hilarious) interactions we'd hear or see between prospective intern/job candidates.

For example, at one swim test I was at, two girls started sizing each other up like two Western lowland silver-back gorillas.  Instead of brute strength, they used their Mean Girl Words*.

Goo.  Good thing she never had whistle envy.

It began with quiet prodding, like a shark circling its prey.

Girl 1: So, did you do any internships?

Girl 2: Yes, I did three.  Let me take 28 minutes to explain to you in detail what I did at each place.

Girl 1: Wow, that's like so cool.  I only did two internships.  But I trained a dolphin to spin.


Girl 1: Oh, I'd rather not say. 

Girl 1: WHAT?

It got dirtier then.

Girl 1: Do you think like, because you already had a whistle, maybe you're overqualified for this job?

Girl 2:  No, I think it makes me more qualified.

Girl 1:  How long did you prepare for this swim test?  I hired an Olympian to train me in the Baltic Sea.

Girl 2: I swam the English channel five times without goggles.

Girl 1: Whatever.  Are you seriously going to wear THAT skirt for the interview?

Of course, neither of these two girls got jobs (to my knowledge).  We could reference back to my Facebook post about how to conduct yourself properly both in cyberspace and in real life, but I'll leave that life lesson for another time.

The fact is, the pivotal moment in this vicious exchange was The Whistle:  a plastic or metal object that hangs around your neck, gets really smelly, and sometimes can chip your teeth.  

At most facilities, new trainers do not get a whistle right away.  They may start learning to work with the animals before then, and of course they're learning how to bridge behaviors at that point.  They're just using other bridges, like points, taps, or verbal ones.   

A bridging stimulus is a bridging stimulus: it means criteria has been achieved and reinforcement is coming.  But the Marine Mammal Whistle has such power in our field that it even confuses the seasoned trainer into thinking that the dolphins believe the Whistle is the more "powerful bridge".  No, no, no.  Not unless you make it so.   In an ideal world, all bridging stimuli should hold the same value.  

But I don't want to continue to lead you all to think I was not excited to earn my first whistle at my first paid job.  Oh, I was psyched.  Having a whistle meant I'd accomplished a Career Milestone, having a whistle meant I could start training behaviors with dolphins way more easily than with the other bridges (d'uh, it's easier for a brand new trainer to bridge a tail walk approx with a whistle than it is with a point), and yes, it kind of represented a status symbol that non-trainers could appreciate.

What makes this a marine mammal trainer photo? The whistle.  What makes this photo awkward? Everything else.


She'd be like, "Uh, WTF?"

If I called home and said, "HEY MOM! GUESS WHAT! I GOT MY WHISTLE TODAY!"

She'd  say, "That's so great!"

Why? Because The Whistle = Marine Mammal Trainer.

Each facility is a little different in how it determines an entry-level trainer is ready for a whistle.  At my first facility, each new trainer had to take a Whistle Test.  You were only eligible for the Whistle Test when you'd completed your Safety Test (in which you had to remember, verbatim, the entire packet of safety protocol of the facility in every animal department and you failed if you got less than 80%), a Terminology Test (again, verbatim answers and less than 80% was failing), and a Behavior Scenario Test (80% was failing, but you had a little more wiggle room on the answers).  If you did not pass these tests within your 90 day probation period, you no longer had a job.

Sound tough?  It was.  But I'm very glad for it, because it provided me with a very solid understanding of safety and training basics.  Plus, it developed a sense of camaraderie with the other new trainers.

So when I passed those tests, I knew I was eligible for The Whistle Test.  The goings-on of the Whistle Test were shrouded in deep, gut-churning mystery.  I'd heard rumors about an additional swim test.  I'd heard that The Test was harder than any swim test.   I'd heard that some people failed.

On the day I turned in my Behavior and Terminology tests, I was sitting in my department's office filling out records anxiously waiting to hear from The Boss if I'd passed.  One of the more experienced trainers approached me.

Trainer: Cat, you did really well on both of your tests, good job!
Cat: Phew!
Trainer: Meet us outside in a bathing suit in 4 minutes.
Cat: Durrrr asdliugalsidugasdg

Let me just tell you that being in a bathing suit in front of a bunch of people was not something I was used to at this juncture in my career.  My internship required shorts and a t-shirt tucked in, and at my new job I work khakis, white tennis shoes, and a blue polo.  I was not prepared in the least to display my pale-as-the-driven-snow legs, not to mention my horrid tan lines.  But, they'd told me to be outside in four minutes, so I went.

Two other new trainers were outside in their swimwear.  One was a guy from the sea lion department, the other was a girl who worked at another dolphin department.  They'd both been at the facility for a while and had probably seen or heard about a Whistle Test.  I on the other hand, had only been there two months and was petrified.  

As we stood there, more and more trainers from the park flooded in to watch.    To watch me…in my bathing suit…. perform some mysterious set of activities.  

When everyone had gathered, a senior trainer announced the day's events.  We had to do an underwater swim nearing the lengths required for my swim test at that facility, but we had to swim through a gate channel twice to pass.  Gulp.

Then we had to haul ourselves out onto a higher catwalk using just our arm strength.   Once we had completed that, we were informed we'd get further instructions.

The three of us greenhorns prepared ourselves to launch into the water.  I felt confident I could complete the underwater swim.  When the signal was given to dive in, I pushed off with all of my might and attempted a high-arching, pretty dive.   I sailed into the air and into a parabolic arch that could render any dolphin envious, my toes expertly pointed, and my trajectory ready to take me into a smooth entry beneath the aquamarine water. 

Me and my expertly pointed toes still crashed clumsily onto the surface, where gravity and my mass allowed me to sink beneath the waves.  So I got zero points for style, but I still completed the underwater swim.

When I resurfaced, I was reminded I needed to haul myself out of the habitat onto the catwalks.   The catwalks were roughly three feet from the surface.  But to me, they might as well been 78,000 feet tall.  I had virtually no upper body strength.   My cohorts had no problem deftly plucking themselves from the pool and landing gently on their feet (one was a dude, the other was a former gymnast).  

An actual photo of the catwalk.

I, on the other hand, successfully got my hands on the catwalk's wooden planks.  I might have even, as I recall, bent my elbows slightly.   Alas, that was all I could do.  At the time, there was no strength in my nerdy, girly arms.  

At this point, other trainers started encouraging me, telling me I Could Do It.  I had to inform them (and not just with my words) that No, I Could Not.   They gave me tips.

"Swing your legs over the side!"

"Just get to your forearms!"

"Go to the gym for like three months and do 100 pushups a day, then try again!"

Okay, so no one said the latter comment.  But the former two proved relatively helpful.  My feet wanted to betray me by bracing themselves on the fencing surrounding the habitat, allowing for the necessarily leverage to get my pale, weak self onto dry land.   I somehow managed to get one of my forearms onto the dock while the other hand held on to dear life, my legs swinging unhelpfully underneath me and under the catwalk.  

After several minutes of struggling, I finally wrenched myself free of the water and dragged my torso, ribs, and eventually my legs onto the catwalk, ripping skin from all of the aforementioned places.   Alas, the abrasions were proof of my success!  Battle scars, indeed.

We were told to go to another department with a larger, colder habitat.  "Run!" said the senior trainer running the rite-of-passage. 

We ran in our bathing suits across the park and into the next and final stage of our Whistle Acquisition. There stood one of the managers, holding in her hand a capsule just large enough for a whistle.   

"I'll put one whistle in this capsule," the manager said.  "Then I'll throw it into the pool.  Once it hits the bottom, the first person in gets the first whistle."  

I knew the water was 50 degrees.  I knew I was going to be in first.  

As the capsule sank to the bottom, I ran and dove into the water.  My chest constricted in the cold and my abrasions burned in the salt water.  But I MUST HAVE THAT WHISTLE.

I dove to the bottom of the habitat, grabbed the capsule, and emerged victorious.

The other two trainers quickly earned their whistles in the same manner.  We were all in a great mood.   After we had changed and dried off, some of the more senior trainers tuned our whistles to the same frequency as everyone else's.  They tied the whistles to lanyards and gave us our Trainer Status Symbol.  The Great Whistle.

When I called my parents that evening to tell them about it, they were ecstatic.  I got at least five cards from different family members congratulating me on the accomplishment.   When I wore the whistle around the park, newer trainers looked upon it with reverence.  Those of us with whistles knew what we had gone through the same exciting experience to get one.

Sure, the whistle I earned is like 5 bucks at PetSmart.  It's just a dog whistle.  Other facilities use plastic or police whistles that you could easily find at places such as: Amazon, Google, or  Oriental Trading Company.  

These whistles would be AWESOME in our job!

But that's not the point.   No matter how your facility doles out whistles (if that's a bridge you use), it is a big deal to complete the toolkit of a new trainer.  It is an experience that should be treated with due respect.  

Whistles.  Making dolphin trainers look good since…never.

Are dolphin trainer whistles magical? No.  Do they automatically make you a trainer?  No.  But they are special in other ways.  

Now I look back at all of the whistles I've had, and the ones I've managed to keep.  They hold a lot of sentimental value to me, even though they are worn and smell weird.  The silver whistles are dull and chipped.  My plastic whistles have teeth marks in them.  But they are still special to me.   They helped me communicate moments in an animals' life that meant excitement, learning, and relationship-building.  Yes, I can do that without it, but that was the method I used (and still use) to tell an animal I love and respect, "Perfect job!"   

So now I want to know: how did you guys land your first whistle (or clicker, or whatever other tangible bridge you may use)?

* According to medical experts, Mean Girl Words are 35 bajillion times more powerful than any silverback gorilla


  1. Hi Cat!

    I just started following your blog and I love it! This post really hit home for me.

    I was just wondering if you knew if you need to take a swim test for internships or just job positions? I'm pretty good at swimming but I'm not a professional.

    Thanks for the help!

    1. Hi Mari!

      You don't need to take a swim test for any internship to my knowledge (at least in the U.S.). Many internships will allow you to take a swim test, whether it's their own or others. For example, our swim test is pretty simple, but other facilities' tests are more difficult. So we allow our interns and seasonal trainers to practice elements of the more difficult swim tests in addition to our own.

  2. Let me be the only awkward person who will answer the last question presented in the post.

    How did I land my first whistle? I got it for my birthday a couple of years after starting my marine mammal training obsession. Generally female teens are thrilled over receiving cellphones or makeup, but I was (and still am) that person who prefers animals to a lot of people.

    All I wanted that year was a whistle and a backpack to carry interaction toys in, judge me.

    I guess getting that whistle marked a turning point in my life. As you explained it, the whistle = the trainer.

    I still use it, and wear it, and love it because that whistle is MINE. It marks MY personal goals and accomplishments. We're going to stop there because I could type a 300 page paper on the Whistle and all it's glory.

    Just as an aside, I just found your blog and I am in love with it! I get so excited to read your posts. Thanks for writing!

    1. With your hilarious writing style, I wouldn't mind reading your 300 page paper on Whistle Glory :) Are you in the field now?

      Thanks so much for this quippy comment :) I'm so glad you like the blog!

    2. That little compliment means more to me then you'll ever know. Thank you :)

      Alas, I am still a bit too young to be an active trainer rather than an intern or such. However, I've been honing my skills with two wiggly dogs and a horse who knows she's smarter than I and is not afraid to prove it. I'll leave the following scenarios up to your imagination...

      No problem! It's been really fun getting to read about your experiences. I think I almost peed myself over the "Funniest Thing a Guest Has Said" post. Hope you have a fantastic weekend!!:)

    3. Two wiggly dogs. Hahaha! Great image; you've definitely got a way with comedic writing!!

  3. Dear Cat,
    Just as a heads up, I have written a post about you on my blog. Maybe you would be so kind as to reading it and maybe commenting?
    Thank you!

  4. Oops, here is the link:
    Thank you again!

    1. Martha!! Wow!!!! You really just made my day (or week, or year). Thank you so much, that was so unbelievably sweet :)

  5. I just wanted to let you know that i love your blog. I am on the opposite end of the story from many of your readers. I am a former trainer, my career roughly spanning the years 2000-2009. Reading your blog brings back many of my own fond memories, which i am, in my own way, putting into written form.

    I don't have an exciting first whistle story like yours, but i still remember it like it was yesterday. I worked at a facility that housed both dolphins and sea lions. Everyone was there to work dolphins, of course, which meant everyone had to learn sea lions first. Working dolphins was, at that facility, earned through blood, sweat, and tears.

    Once you got to a point where you were nearly able to work sea lions without supervision, you would learn your animal's water aerial, usually a ball touch. You were expected to use a verbal bridge while your mentor would whistle. Once you mastered the timing of your bridge, you got your whistle.

    Two of us got our whistles the same day, and we were so excited that we dug through drawers until we discovered suitable lanyard material; a roll of green twine. (My first stop on my way home that evening was to purchase a proper lanyard !) The senior trainers laughed at our improvisation, the junior trainers looked at us with a new respect. For obtaining your whistle meant graduating to dolphins. (Which means i laughed out loud at your dolphins vs sea lions entry... i truly understand !)

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  7. Hi Cat, I am finishing up my internship with the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program! Any suggestions on what I should do next, or another facility that would be a good opportunity to intern?