Do you yearn to teach dolphins to leap for their lunch? Help sea horses
survive in the wild? Educate others about the wonders of the deep? There are
lots of opportunities at aquariums and marine parks across North America.
Aquariums vary greatly in size and focus. For example, some focus strictly
on freshwater aquatics. Others are renowned for their displays of saltwater
Some, like Landry's in Houston, are run for profit. Others, like Monterey
Bay Aquarium in California, are not. However, their missions are usually along
similar lines: animal conservation, research and education.
A Sea of Choices
Aquariums employ people in a wide range of roles. They include everything
from animal trainers and exhibit designers to the customer service and payroll
The general curator oversees an institution's entire animal collection
and animal management staff. The curator decides when and how to acquire animals
and which animals should breed. They also use expert knowledge of animal
needs to help supervise exhibit designs.
The aquarium veterinarian is responsible for the health-care program
for the animal collection. They help diagnose problems with fish and marine
mammals and maintain records.
The keeper/aquarist provides daily care to the institution's animals.
They prepare diets, clean tanks, maintain the exhibits and keep records.
The director of research supervises research projects. They serve
as liaison between the institution and the academic community. They also
publish articles in scientific journals.
The curator of education plans and carries out the institution's
According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, salaries vary depending
on the institution and its location. Institutions located in urban areas generally
offer higher salaries. And, of course, it depends on your role.
An animal keeper's salary in the U.S. can range from minimum wage to more
than $30,000 a year, depending on skills and tenure.
To become an aquarium vet or a marine mammal researcher, follow the same
educational path as for a regular animal vet or for other researcher roles.
That means getting an advanced degree. Look for opportunities to specialize
in marine mammals.
Similarly, for administrative roles, pursue the standard qualifications
for that profession and seek out internship opportunities at your nearest
Trainers and animal care workers require more specialized training. According
to a recent job posting, a marine mammal training specialist at the Vancouver
Aquarium requires a degree in science or a related discipline and a minimum
of five years of training experience with whales, dolphins or porpoises.
You also need scuba diving certification and advanced public speaking skills.
A Unique Program
The aquarium science program at Oregon Coast Community College is the first
program in the U.S. to focus on hands-on educational training programs for
people wanting to enter the aquatic animal care profession.
"The program prepares individuals for husbandry work [raising and caring
of animals] at public aquariums, fish hatcheries, aquaculture facilities and
ornamental fish enterprises," says program director Bruce Koike.
The program is becoming popular with veterinary students seeking training
in aquatic animal health management, he adds.
Koike says that since around 1990, the industry has basically hired individuals
with a bachelor's degree in a natural science. Employers provide lots of
training, since many of those new hires have no experience.
"Many times, these folks leave after six to 12 months because this wasn't
what they thought they'd be doing. When they depart, the expensive and time-consuming
activity of advertising, evaluating applications, interviewing, then training
starts over again," says Koike.
"We hope to lessen this burden on the industry and individual facilities."
The course includes two practica and an 11-week internship. It makes students
aware of the actual job activities. "If they don't like it, then they can
opt out without having invested four to five years of study," says Koike.
Volunteering and Internship Opportunities
Volunteers are a crucial part of the day-to-day operation of many aquariums.
"We have more than 1,000 individual volunteers -- by far the largest number
at any aquarium," says Ken Peterson. He is the public relations manager at
the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
In fact, the aquarium's professional staff is less than half the size of
the volunteer corps.
"Volunteers do everything from serving as guides on the floor to caring
for stranded and ill southern sea otters. We have more than 100 volunteer
scuba divers who clean windows underwater and talk with visitors during our
kelp forest feeding shows.
"Many are involved in animal care roles, others in clerical positions.
Some assist in public relations and special events. I'd say that the folks
working with sea otters are probably in unique volunteer jobs."
The aquarium's 450 volunteer guides take a 13-week course in marine science
and interpretation. They can earn college credit for the course.
"We then ask them to make a one-year commitment," says Peterson. "We have
three generations of volunteers: some are middle school and high school age
and others are in their 80s."
Peterson says many people are happy just to volunteer. "Some hope for jobs,
especially on the animal care side, and some choose to work part time while
He warns that volunteering with the goal of getting a job could prove frustrating
if there are few openings. However, it will make the staff familiar with your
personality and skills, which could help.
Find your nearest aquarium and ask about volunteer and internship opportunities.
If you're not sure which aquarium role suits you, this is a good way to find
out. Ask the aquarium staff about current and future projects that may require
American Zoo and Aquarium Association
Check out careers and job listings
Volunteer and Job Opportunities at Monterey Bay Aquarium
Find out how to get involved
International Marine Animal Trainers Association
Get some advice on training