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Careers in Aquariums

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 habitats.

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 staff.

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 educational programs.

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.

Diving In

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 aquarium.

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 they volunteer."

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 full-time positions.


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

Back to Career Cluster


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