Sunday, February 16, 2014

My Second Swim Test: Miami Edition

Since I've started writing this blog, I've got a lot of questions about how I got started in the marine mammal training realm.  Let's just say it involved an internship, a job training birds, a zillion unanswered resumes/job applications, and a couple of swim tests and interviews.

Me, in college, a few months before my first swim test experience.   I haven't changed much.
I've already written about my first swim test experience at SeaWorld San Diego (you can read about that here).  And as you know, I didn't land the job.  Shocking, I know.  I thought for sure they'd offer me a job after my embarrassingly awful interview.

SeaWorld High Up Person #1: Wow, what did we think about Cat?
SeaWorld High Up Person #2: That was the worst interview ever.
SeaWorld High Up Person #1: You're right.  That was the worst.  I feel bad for her.  Maybe
                                                         she can bring us donuts.
SeaWorld High Up Person #2: Good idea.  Hire her.

No, no, that's not how it worked at all. 

I had another interview at a zoo in Arkansas for an elephant trainer position (more on this in another blog), but I didn't get that job either.   I was really beginning to feel like I'd have more luck landing a job interview if I sent my resume through a buzz saw, lit the shreds of paper on fire, stuffed the ashes into an envelope, addressed it, then flushed it down the toilet. 

Farewell, dreams o' mine!

Then one day, as I walked from my dorm at the University of New Hampshire to one of my classes,  my cell phone rang.  I didn't recognize the number, but I answered anyway.  A kind voice greeted me on the other end and identified herself as a trainer from the Miami Seaquarium.  She said they had my resume on file, and were about to have another round of swim tests and would I be interested in partaking?



"Yes, that'd be great," I replied in real life.

She told me the date of the swim test and told me what to expect.  If I passed, I'd be granted an interview.   Since I hadn't prepared anything proper to wear to my SWC interview, I smartly asked her what she suggested candidates wear after their swim test.  She told me to wear something business casual, but not too fancy.  She suggested a sun dress of some kind, which sent me into a panic because my idea of dressing nice involved wearing jeans with zero to three holes in them.*

Here is a picture of me looking nice.

After the phone call, I alerted my friends and family to this good fortune.  I knew I could pass the swim test, even though the underwater swim was a few feet longer than SWC's was when I took it.  But I figured 130 feet wasn't that much longer than 120 feet; my lungs would still be screaming at me at 60 feet, so what did it matter anyway?

The swim test was in May, the day after I finished school,  and I had three weeks to prepare.  I practiced the swim test in the ol' UNH pool just as I had when I got the news I'd swim test at SWC.  But things came easier this time around, because as I've said before, swim tests are 99.57% mental accomplishments.  And lord knows I'm mental.

Anyhoo, my plan was to go to Miami one night, do the swim test the next day, then get back to New Hampshire because I had to move out of my dorm the next day.  There was no wiggle room.  I was stressed out of my mind, but time marched forwards as it tends to do.  Before I knew it, I was at the airport with my little backpack nervously awaiting my flight to south Florida.

As I sat in the chair doing my word puzzles, I felt a familiar sensation in the back of my throat.   Was it a sneeze?  No.  Was it hunger?  No.  Was it a rhinovirus making its timely debut on the eve of an event that could change my life forever?  No.  Oh wait, sorry.  YES.

THEY MAKE STUFFED ANIMAL RHINOVIRUSES! Okay, now that's cute.  Here's the website!

I denied that I was getting sick, because that always works right?  By the time I was on the plane, my throat was on fire.  Nothing could keep my mind off of it, except for the 0.0004 seconds it took me to eat the little bag of party mix that is really seriously DELICIOUS but is it really worth putting 5 pieces of food in a bag the size of a thimble leaving you feeling more empty inside than before you ate it? 

The flight from NH to Miami was lengthy and by the time I landed, it was almost nightfall.  I could barely speak my throat hurt so badly and my nose was running.  I found a cab which took me to my hotel, which I'd booked having zero clue how gigantic Miami was.   I chose a hotel in South Beach, because it was the only town I recognized when I looked at a map of the city.  

"How far away is Miami Seaquarium from South Beach?" I asked the cab driver.  The virus I'd contracted stabbed my throat with a zillion hot knives.

"Seaquarium!" he said.  

"Yeah," I said.  "How long of a drive is it from South Beach to the Seaquarium?"  I was pretty sure I was swallowing blood.

There was another "Seaquarium" response followed by rapid fire Spanish, which my collegiate-level Russian minor really prepared me for.

I arrived at the hotel, tipped the cab driver who was still talking and probably thought I was the rudest person ever (even though I did a lot of smiling and nodding), and I walked up to the front desk.  I checked in and then asked the guy working there how far of a drive MSQ was from the hotel.

"It's like 20 minutes from here," he said.  "Why didn't you get a hotel on Key Biscayne?"

"What is that?"  it sounded like some kind of pie.

Key lime (Biscayne?) pie

"….." he stared at me.  "Just come down here and get a cab when you want to go."

I explained my job interview and he told me what time to hail a cab.  I thanked him profusely.  I went upstairs and looked at my throat in the mirror.  I don't know why I did (and still do) that.  I don't know what I'm expecting.  Like maybe I'll see the colonies of the virus or bacteria doing the damage and I'll be able to reason with them?

Me: Oh! Hey! What a surprise meeting you here! 
Illness: Hi! 
Me: Look, I have a job interview/test/big day tomorrow, can you maybe come back another
        time to eat my flesh?
Illness: Oh my, we are so embarrassed.  What's a better day for you?

So when I gazed into my gaping mouth, I saw I had a killer case of tonsillitis on top of a cold, and I thought, This is it, you'll never be able to do the swim test now.   I decided to order a lot of food and eat my feelings.

Bah!!! The "sore throat microbe" plush!! Here's that website again in case you missed it.

The next day, I woke up 3 hours early and worried for 3 additional hours than was necessary.  My cold was in full force and I would've been more comfortable had I been swallowing bits of glass.  I made it down to the lobby and got a cab.   By the time I got to MSQ, I was a complete nervous wreck.  I walked into the main office area where I met the other swim test candidates.

Sizing up swim test candidates is one of the worst parts of a swim test.  You psyche yourself out because there's always Someone Who Looks Like A Dolphin Trainer (hint: I wasn't that person).  There's always Someone With A Lot More Experience Than You.  And there's always Someone Who Likes To One-Up You.  I had all three classes of people well-represented in my group.  But on a cool side note, one of the girls (she was in the "Looks Like A Dolphin Trainer" category) wound up being one of my best friends!  And luckily, she and I had enough hilarious experiences at MSQ for lots of future Middle Flipper blogs.

…I will never be The Girl Who Looks Like A Dolphin Trainer.   Heyyyyyyyy

Anyways, the handful of us taking the swim test sat nervously in the front room, filling in our job applications and wondering when we'd be marched to the Swim Test Arena.  People talked about their internships.  People talked about what part of the test they were most nervous about. I tried not to talk because I thought I might accidentally shoot blood out of my gullet, which I thought might give me a disadvantage.

The supervisor of animal training came to collect us to show us where to change into our bathing suits.  She was very nice and made me feel at ease.  I looked around the park as she walked us around and thought, "Maybe I'll work here one day."  I started to feel more comfortable then.  The swim test at SWC was packed with lots of applicants.  This group only had six or seven people.  I thought I could handle that.

After we changed, we were brought to the sea lion show pool, which is where the test was conducted when I was there almost 8 years ago.   The supervisor addressed all of us, saying we were waiting for one of their interns who was going to take the test with us.  That girl showed up a few minutes later, and then everything got started.  We would do each portion of the test by ourselves.  The only part that wouldn't be watched like a hawk was the 15 pushups.  If we failed a part of the test, we had one more chance to complete it.  Otherwise, we wouldn't get an interview.

The first part was the freestyle swimming.  When I got in the water, I was delighted at the warm temperature.  I can totally do this, I thought.  My tonsils protested, but I completed the freestyle swim without a problem.  And because the water was so comfortably warm, it was much easier for me to maintain my pace.  

The result of the google search "swimming tonsils".   I love the internet.

When it came time for the underwater swim, the supervisor gave us a few tips.  Because we had to swim two lengths of the sea lion show pool, we needed to be careful how we oriented ourselves on the second leg of the journey.  She told us some landmarks to watch for underwater, but I only remember one:

"If you see big black blurry circles," she said.  "You're going to the side of the pool instead of across.  If you come up at the big black blurry circles, you did not complete the 130 foot swim and you fail.  Make sure you look for ---"

And that's where I lost my concentration.  I looked for the black circles so I could understand where I was going.  Sure enough, they were a full 90 degrees away from the start/end point of the swim.  If I wound up there, I'd have a long way back to the finishing point.  

Then I realized I was missing the rest of the supervisor's helpful tip speech.  "Any questions?" she asked.

I looked around frantically.  Should I ask someone what she just said?  No! That would look like I wasn't listening.  I'd have to do my best.

My turn came quickly.  I sank beneath the water and began to swim.  The water was so warm, my throat was so raw, and before I knew it I was at the other end of the pool.

"OMG" I thought.  "I have this in the bag!!!!!!! I barely feel like I need to breathe!"

I kept swimming.  La dee da.  Tra la la.  I thought about how I would answer questions in the interview.  Swim swim swim.  I thought about how I was so happy I was done with college.  Swim swim swim.  Maybe I'd have time to watch a few shows at the park before my flight.  Swim swim swim BLACK CIRCLES!!!!!!!




Womp womp!

I am completely off course.  I swam in a diagonal trajectory instead of straight back.  WHAT DO I DO?

My body had a very dissonant conversation.

Brain: Well, you need to keep swimming.
Brain: If you don't keep swimming and complete this task, you fail and won't get an interview
Brain: You're fine, just keep swimming
Brain: You at least know where you are in the pool, so you know where you need to go to finish
Brain: You are completely fi- SWIM TO SURFACE

That was enough for me.  I pushed past the discomfort and spasming in my throat and screaming in my head that I was out of air and I MADE IT.  I came up, trying not to look out of breath (…I was unsuccessful at this task).   But the supervisor telling me I'd completed the underwater swim was enough to make me forget about all of my bodily woes.

At that point, I thought I was on Easy Street (turns out I was on the Rickenbacker Causeway) in terms of getting an interview.  All I had left was the surface dive to retrieve a weight, and the pushups that were supposed to be done on the honor system.   The relief I felt of having the breath hold behind me was immensely satisfying.  

The supervisor congratulated all of us on our underwater swim (we had all passed!), and explained the surface dive for weight retrieval.  We would not be getting one weight, but two.  No big deal, I thought.  I could handle two puny little weights.   


I watched as she threw in both weights.  They fell in different spots in the habitat, but I could see them clearly from the surface.  I swam confidently over to the first weight and dove down, pointing my toes to show I could handle the task AND look good.   I found the first weight with no problem.  Yeahhhhhhhh, I cheered in my head.  I got an interview fo'sho.  

I looked around for the second weight.   Nothing.  It had disappeared.  I sat at the bottom, holding my breath, clutching the first weight.  I tried to stay in the same orientation I thought second weight was thrown, but I couldn't see it at all.  

Brain: Oh my god, you're screwed

They might look cute, but they sure do freak out easily!

I had to do something! This wasn't supposed to be the hardest part of the test!! That was over now! But here I was, holding my breath again.  Here I was, clueless as to where the second weight was and I COULDN'T SURFACE WITHOUT IT.   I moved slowly along the pool's floor, feeling with my hands.  My eyes bugged out of my skull, hoping it would improve my acuity.  My lungs burned and my brain wailed in lament.   I didn't know which feeling was worse: knowing I'd not get an interview, or knowing that the reason I wouldn't get an interview was because I'd be dead because I WAS NOT GOING TO SURFACE WITHOUT THE WEIGHT.

And then. 

Lo! The blurry blob I knew was the dive weight sat seductively in my viewing range.  It laid there inert, yes, but it teased me all the same.

Weight #2: Oh.  You've found me, have you?  Took you long enough, moron.

I grabbed it triumphantly and shot to the surface, this time not caring that I emerged with an explosion of breath and panic.  I had held my breath longer than during the underwater swim part but I HAD THE TWO WEIGHTS.

Here I am, surfacing.

The pushups were a piece of cake compared to the rest of the test.  And when all was said and done,  and my blood oxygen levels were returning to that of a living person, I felt really, really good.  I even forgot about my sore throat for a moment.  And I'd earned myself an interview.

I changed into my Nice Clothes, which I had bought especially for this moment.  I even bought Nice Shoes, which I only wore once (at Miami Seaquarium).  Why?  They were these white strappy high heels that looked awesome on someone who knew how to walk in them.  I hadn't worn heels in 4 years, and flip flops are still challenging pieces of footwear for a person with my remedial level of ambulatory activity.   But I didn't want to look like a homeless person as I did during my SWC interview, so the heels seemed necessary.  But as my group walked to the area where we'd be interviewed, I realized what a stupid mistake I'd made.  

Are you %*&#ing kidding me?!

I hobbled several feet behind the group.  Are you okay? they'd ask me.  I wanted to reply, "No.  I am the dumbest person alive because I thought I could wear high heels but it turns out I'm still a 10 year old kid who needs to wear velcro shoes, can I have a wheelchair please?"  But instead I said I was fine, just "enjoying the view".  

I baby-giraffe-walked to the Top Deck area where we were told our interview times.  The supervisor asked us if anybody had to leave for a flight that day.  I told her yes, I had to be leaving at one.  She said that was no problem, they could accommodate that.  She left with the first candidate for the interview.

"Wow," another girl said.  "That was brave of you."

I assumed she was talking about my shoes.  As I was about to say, "Not really, I would've been more comfortable had someone used a nail gun to fix stilts to my feet", she continued her thought.


"Like it was really brave of you to make a flight on the day of your interview.  Don't you think that looks bad?"

WTF? I thought.  Why is this chick so worried about how I look to the rest of the Seaquarium?  At this point, if they are looking at how well I can walk in heels, I'll be lucky to sell arepas on the side of the causeway.

"It's okay,"I said.  "The supervisor didn't seem upset.  I didn't have a choice, anyway.  I have to be out of my dorm tomorrow morning."

"But it's your job," the girl said.  "Why wouldn't you make your flight earlier?  They probably think you don't care."

Mean Girls 2: Swim Test.

At this point, I can only remember what was going on in my head, which was a collection of four-letter words that bring immense catharsis and a dash of humor to any situation, but those words are also not very professional and while I'm not known for my high level of professionalism, I am also not a complete idiot.  I'd venture to guess that I replied with some quippy phrase and changed the subject to something everyone likes to talk about: themselves.   But all the while I kept thinking, why would someone in that situation go out of their way to make another person feel bad?  Especially if one day we end up working together?

Regardless, my interview went well.  It was very laid-back and I felt comfortable with both of the people involved.  When it was all over, I walked outside, ripped off my shoes and put on my flip flops. I hailed a cab and caught my flight no problem.   I moved out of my dorm in NH and back in with my parents who now lived in New York City.

I waited eagerly to hear from the Seaquarium.  In the meantime, I had to get a job in NYC in case I didn't get the job in Miami.  So I wound up working for a family friend's dermatology practice, which meant I had to wear Nice Clothes again AND heels.  Luckily, my job duties included: sending reminder cards to about 500 patients, and being cold in the ridiculous air conditioning.

I'd work in an office setting if I got to be near this stud.

It didn't take but a week to feel totally miserable at a desk job.  There's nothing wrong with desk jobs, but they're just not my thing.  Some other Things that aren't My Things are: heels, and being cold.  So you can see, this was not an ideal situation.  So when my phone rang and I saw the 305 area code, I put down my reminder cards and ran out of the office to take the call.  

It was the supervisor.

I got the job.

"Are you interested in accepting?"

I remembered what my mom said.  She said it's okay to take a few days to think about an offer.  But then I looked at the doctor's office door.  I looked at my shoes.  I looked out the window to the street, but the garbage bag tower ubiquitous on every NYC sidewalk blocked my view of the urban delight below me.


My dream had come true.  I called my parents and alerted them to the good news.  I told my doctor friend the good news ("Good job," he said. "You weren't cut out for heels anyway").

Thanks to this entire experience, I landed my first paid marine mammal training job.  Something I'd been told by so many people was impossible or pointless.   It was one of the best feelings in the world, and it took me over a year to experience it.

One of these people plays basketball for a living

So for those of you still trying to land your first job, don't give up.  Learn something from every unsuccessful swim test or interview.  Be nice to your swim test candidates, there's no need to compare yourself to the others in a way that makes them look bad and you look good.   That's just good common sense for being a human being, anyway.   And know that it's normal to send out 159 resumes and only hear back from one.  Keep going.  Keep learning, keep improving.   Most of us career trainers went through the same thing.  

I'd also like to point out that I took this swim test in 2006.  I know so many people scour the internet for information on their swim test to be Best Prepared.  What I've just written about is 8 years old; I have no clue if the test has changed, what habitat(s) they have the test in, or what the interview process is like now.  But the general principles are the same: swim hard, prepare yourself, be positive, and don't be a jerk.   You can do it!

* I didn't even dress up for my elopement.  I had a bloody toe from fish prep that day, and I wore jeans and a sweat shirt.  


  1. Hey Cat!
    I was wondering if you could bestow upon me some of your time in order to discuss a few things concerning the marine mammal world, and what I am intending to do to get into it.
    As an aspiring marine mammal trainer, your quippy blog posts and professional advice would be/are greatly appreciated. I just have a few questions.
    Also, I completely understand if you don't feel the need to. However, if you should be so inclined, you could shoot me an email at
    Thank you for your consideration! I hope you have a swell day. :)
    Alice S.

  2. Hello Cat, I am trying to pick your brain and get some info about the miami seaquarium I am trying to become a intern there and i have a interview with them as well, and I am trying to get an idea of what they are looking for ect. If you could email me that would be great, so I can get some info on your experiences there. hope to here from you soon. Thank again Isaiah T. (

  3. Cat, do you believe that it is encouraged, or looked down upon to do more than the test requires? For example, if the underwater swim is only 100ft, and you can do 150ft, should you?