Day in the Life: Flippers, fins and fun times

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A day in the life of a dolphin trainer at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.

Annie Blanks @DestinLogAnnie

Note to Readers: This is the second in a series of articles profiling some interesting careers in Northwest Florida. To suggest a topic, email ablanks@nwfdailynews.com or hosbourne@nwfdailynews.com

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OKALOOSA ISLAND — If you’ve ever wanted to spend hours sorting through fish, playing with dolphins or having a crew of goofy sea lions as your coworkers, then your dream job may be an animal trainer at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.

A team of 16 trainers at the Gulfarium, which opened on Okaloosa Island in 1955, work day in and day out with all of the park’s slippery stars to educate the public about the hundreds of marine animals who call the Gulfarium home.

“The trainers are really ambassadors for the animals,” said Meredith Horn, director of marketing and communications for the Gulfarium. “You’ve got to be able to find that balance between connecting with the animals and connecting with the guests and really sharing their story.”

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“Only the best”

The average day for an animal trainer at the Gulfarium begins at 5 a.m. A staff member spends hours preparing each animal’s meals based on their specific dietary needs, which typically include some mix of capelin, herring and sardines.

On a Tuesday morning, Andy Horn, who has been an animal trainer for eight years, prepares Zeke’s (one of the male dolphins) daily meal. Zeke eats about eight pounds of fish a day, adding up to over 7,000 calories.

Horn inspects each fish individually and checks for any blemishes, cuts or markings on the fish that don’t meet inspection. The fish with abrasions are tossed out.

“Only the best for Zeke,” Horn says as he tossed a capelin with a red spot into the trash bucket.

Horn estimates that up to 80 percent of his day is spent preparing food for the animals and cleaning their environments. If he could, he’d spend 100 percent of his time interacting with the animals, but Horn says a big part of being a trainer at the Gulfarium is doing the behind-the-scenes work to make sure all the animals are healthy and happy.

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“The most important part of our day is preparing the food for our animals,” he said. “We’re held to the same standards as human restaurants … each animal has its own individual diet, according to his environment, physical characteristics and state of growth.”

Caring for the animals

After the meals are prepared, the animal trainers fan out to different sections of the park to say good morning to the animals, feed them and perform routine veterinary care. The trainers interact with the animals with a vocabulary made of hand signals and vocal inflections. They can spend years teaching the animals how to respond to the signals.

“Anything we need to do with the animals, we teach them to do it voluntarily,” Horn said. “We teach them very slowly a new behavior in steps that they will understand, and then we’ll put that step with a hand signal. That allows them the choice to decide to do that behavior or not to do that behavior. It’s part of the trust we build with them.”

This particular morning, Horn and his colleague, Rachel Tolley, needed to perform an ultrasound on Delilah, a 43-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. After giving her a kiss on the nose, Tolley waved her hand and forearm in a circular motion and Delilah rolled over onto her side, patiently floating while the trainers ran an ultrasound wand over her belly.

A staff veterinarian would later inspect the ultrasound images.

The trainers perform checkups on all of the animals, including weighing the sea lions—who waddle onto the scale one by one—and make sure the sea otters get their morning play time.

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“I do enjoy my job”

A big part of being an animal trainer at the Gulfarium is interacting with the public and engaging them in thoughtful conversation about the animals they’re watching. The trainers, who consider themselves ambassadors for the animals, perform multiple shows and encounters each day.

“We focus on education across the board,” Horn said. “Even in our dolphin and sea lion shows, we’re focused on teaching our guests about the dolphins and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The whole concept goes hand in hand. We want you to learn about the animals in here so that we can help protect them out there.”

To that end, the Gulfarium puts on daily shows with the animals, with each of the trainers taking time before and during each show to educate the public about the animals. The Gulfarium also has up-close encounters, where people can interact with the animals on a more personal basis.

Horn, who was a philosophy and psychology major, didn’t expect to be an animal trainer when he grew up, but says he loves his job and the opportunities it affords him to learn about animals.

“I do enjoy my job,” he said. “Every day is pretty unique and rewarding and different. You never quite know what your new experience is going to be with these animals.”

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