When he was three years old, Brandon’s parents took him to Sea World for the first time. “All the animals, but especially the killer whales and the dolphins, just fascinated me,” he remembers.
Growing up, he played with stuffed dolphins and killer whales. He watched Flipper and Free Willy. He followed the saga of Keiko the killer whale on the news. And each time his parents took him back to Sea World, it was the highlight of his summer.
Without a doubt, he knew what he wanted to do when he grew up—work as an animal trainer at a marine park.
One Step Closer
Now Brandon is a junior at Bob Jones University, studying organismal biology. This past summer he got one step closer to his dream career when he was accepted for an internship at the Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, Florida.
“It was a smaller marine facility, so I was able to do a lot,” Brandon says. “I worked with bottlenose dolphins, rough-toothed dolphins, California sea lions, African black-footed penguins and stranded sea turtles on a daily basis.”
A typical day for Brandon began around 6:30 a.m., before the park even opened. He helped test water quality, prepare food for the animals, scrub the sides of the dolphins’ pool and clean other exhibits. Once the park opened, Brandon kept just as busy—selling tickets, working the sound booth during shows, observing medical examinations, helping with sea turtle rehabilitation and much more.
Brandon’s favorite part of the day, however, was participating in shows and educating guests—which he got to do more and more of as the summer progressed.
“I was able to talk to the guests and answer questions during sea lion and bottlenose dolphin Meet N Greet programs,” Brandon says. “For rough-toothed dolphin Meet N Greets, I got to the point where I could do the whole program on my own. I would educate guests on the animal, as well as have them interact with the dolphin while I’m in control of the dolphin, and then have the dolphin do jumps and things.”
Brandon found that flexibility was key. “You’re interacting with the dolphin and with the guests at the same time, and finding that balance is hard,” he says. “Depending on who your guests are, if you have a little child you’re going to do things differently than if you have an adult. Or if you have a big family versus one person. If they want a lot of facts, I can do that. If it’s a little kid, it’s going to be more of a play session, like having the dolphin splash them or something.”
Educating and Performing
The shows were much bigger productions, on stage in front of a large audience instead of poolside with a small group. When he was not working the sound booth for the shows, Brandon played the part of an irresponsible beach-goer to help the audience understand the importance of conservation.
“I would throw a bottle down, and then a trainer would come out with a sea lion, and the sea lion would pick up the bottle and hand it to the trainer,” he says. “And then the trainer would explain the fact that hundreds of thousands of dolphins and sea turtles die from eating plastic litter that looks like jelly fish.”
Behind the scenes, of course, were hours of training the dolphins and sea lions. Brandon found that the psychology class he took at BJU was particularly helpful when training the animals.
He quickly learned that dolphins have moods as much as humans do. “It’s just one step at a time. You might try to do it this way, and that’s not working, so you’ll go about it a different route,” he says. “It just takes time and patience. And if the animal doesn’t want to do it, you can’t make it.”
All Worth It
“Training methods are for the most part based on positive reinforcement,” he says. The rewards differ though, according to each animal’s personality. “One animal learns differently from another one; they learn at different paces, just like humans. This one is driven by food, but this one might like being touched.”
Brandon got to know each dolphin by its personality, and soon found his favorite—a rough-toothed dolphin named Ivan. Not only did Ivan look the coolest, he also responded most consistently to trainers.
The long days and the physical work were all worth it to Brandon, both for the excitement of working with people and also for “the reward of building a relationship with an animal … just realizing the beauty of God’s creation.”
“The internship provided me with great experience,” says Brandon, “and it confirmed my pursuit in this career field … I feel a sense of pride, almost, that I’ve accomplished this and gotten to this point, because this is what I’ve always dreamed of doing.”