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"I Want to Work with Marine Mammals"

This essay offers "counsel to persons who are interested in the animals of the sea." 

Reasons for Public Interest in Marine Mammals

Many of you may want to become involved in one way or another with marine mammals such as sea otters, seals, manatees, or whales. Perhaps such interest has been prompted by Flipper the dolphin on television or Keiko the orca whale (a.k.a. killer whale) in the movies. Interest in marine mammals has also been generated by the underwater movies of Jacques Cousteau, publicity pleading for protection of endangered whales, or simply scientific curiosity. At any rate, there are many reasons for public interest in marine mammals including:

(1)  To save threatened populations, such as those of Florida manatees, monk seals, and right whales. Through nature programs and media exposure, the general public has become aware of many dangers facing the habitat and populations of marine mammals.

(2)  To protect species of marine mammals from over exploitation.  Marine mammals have relatively low rates of net reproduction.   That is, they cannot recover from over-exploitation quickly and they are easily over-exploited.  For example, most of the species of baleen whales were over-exploited from the 17th to early 20th centuries.

(3)  To develop educational tools useful in teaching respect for wildlife (the ethic) and in teaching wildlife management (the art and science). Some educators are teachers, while others are outdoor writers, curators of public aquariums, professional photographers, or nature guides employed by ecotourism companies for tours of the marine environment.

(4)  To gain employment in research on the biology and behavior of marine mammals. There is much interest in gaining knowledge about marine mammals in their natural environment and there is still a great deal to learn about marine mammals. 

(5)  To interact with marine mammals on a one-to-one basis. Interest in this approach is popularized by marine parks, where the public sees marine mammals in large tanks interacting with their trainers, and by movies such as "Free Willie" and "Flipper." Also, researchers examining the communication of marine mammals often work with individual marine mammals in a training environment.

Amateur or Professional Mammalogist?

It is possible to work with marine mammals on either amateur or professional levels; it may be difficult to separate the two.   There is something to be said for enjoying the mammals, studying them, and helping to conserve them while simultaneously working for a living at some other unrelated job.   Volunteering at various conservation organizations is a good way to work with marine mammals on an amateur level.

Whether your marine mammal career is to be amateur or professional, you should start from a known advantage—from a self-recognized personal aptitude for music, visual art, chemistry, psychology, mathematics, animal behavior, or whatever. Tamar Griggs, a schoolteacher, parlayed an intense interest in children’s art into a beautiful book about whales (There’s a Sound in the Sea, 1974, Scrimshaw Press). Thomas A. Gornall, a veterinarian, became an authority on the ailments of marine mammals in zoos and aquariums. Michael Tillman, a mathematician, became an expert on population modeling of wild stocks of whales and seals.

Over the past two decades, interest in marine mammal science has expanded greatly. Membership in research and professional societies, such as the Society for Marine Mammalogy, has been increasing.  Tourism, whale-watching, and ecotours to marine mammal breeding and feeding areas have become enormously popular.

Opportunities in Research

There are various career opportunities in marine mammal research, such as:

  • Natural history, ecology, and marine environment
  • Management (applied) biology and conservation
  • Physiology and biochemistry
  • Pathology and parasitology
  • Bioacoustics and hearing
  • Behavior and psychology
  • Anatomy and histology
  • Systematics and evolution
  • Husbandry (care in captivity)
  • Population dynamics

Prior to the 1970s, research on marine mammals in the United States was largely practical rather than basic. It was directed toward the production of skins, fertilizer, meat, and oil; toward understanding the importance of mammals in undersea warfare; and toward improving the care of captive mammals for use in research and public display. Since the 1970s, with the enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the study of marine mammals has become more conservation-based, and, as a result, more basic. Research has been aimed toward the understanding of marine mammals in their natural environment because they contribute (in the words of the Marine Mammal Protection Act) to the "health of the ecosystem of which they form a constituent element."

In the past 20 years, research on marine mammals has included:

  • Population assessment
  • Definition of critical habitat of species
  • Year round movements of animals
  • Timing and age of reproduction
  • Food habits
  • Social behavior
  • Diving behavior
  • Physiological monitoring (for example: average heart rate and body temperature)
  • Energy budgets
  • Genetics and evolution

Military research, especially the Navy's research on marine mammals, has shifted toward examining physiological capabilities of marine mammals and toward assessing the density of marine mammal populations (to minimize disturbance of marine mammals during military operations). Other research on captive animals has focused on physiology, sensory capabilities, and learning (cognition).

Government research has focused on management issues such as population assessment, reducing by-catch incidental to commercial fishing, movements of animals, and food habits, while academic research has addressed more theoretical issues. As electronic technology becomes more advanced, and remote collection of data (for example, via satellite) becomes more complex, there is great potential for discovering new information about aspects of marine mammal life that have, until now, long been hidden.

There are also various affiliates, or research sponsors, for marine mammal scientists. A large portion of ongoing research is sponsored by the Federal government and universities. Marine mammal research affiliates include:

  • Federal government, civilian institutions
  • Universities or colleges
  • Federal government, military institutions
  • Private or unaffiliated laboratories
  • State wildlife departments
  • Museums
  • Zoos or oceanariums
  • Environmental organizations

Opportunities in Education

Marine mammals are a challenge to human understanding.  Many persons seek to meet this challenge through learning about these mammals. Education, understanding, and expression are ongoing processes enjoyed by anyone interested in marine mammals. Herman Melville deftly expressed his understanding of great whales in Moby Dick with its hero-monster white as snow. Young artists express their view of marine mammals by giving us life-size whales of burlap, plywood, concrete, and welded wire. Sound artists mix recordings of whale communications with the music of orchestras and folk-singers while poets expand understanding through words. All these artists are striving to teach fellow human beings about the uniqueness of marine mammals.

Another form of education about marine mammals is displaying them in zoos and oceanariums. This is indeed a good field for you if you are interested in teaching, because zoos and oceanariums bring people into an environment conducive to both education and amusement. Marineland of Florida opened its doors in St. Augustine in 1938. It was the prototype of the oceanarium, or salt-water aquarium where animals as large as 5-ton killer whales can be displayed.  Today in the United States there are at least ten, each with an annual attendance of a half-million or more. Sea World of San Diego, California, claims millions of visitors every year. Scores of smaller zoos and aquariums hold seals and sea lions, and the occasional bottlenose dolphin.

Career Opportunities

The ecotourism cruise, wilderness theme park, or national park tour is a potential source of work where scientific leaders can impart their special knowledge of marine mammals. Such tours are regularly taken, for example, to the whale breeding waters of Baja California, Mexico and to the seal breeding grounds of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.  Other tours go to  Alaska's Pribilof Islands, California's Channel Islands, and eastern Canada. The names of ecotourism organizations can be found in the advertisements of natural history magazines, in travel and resort sections of the Sunday paper, or on the World Wide Web.

Persons with a background in biology and an interest in education can often find a position as a lecturer or tour guide on a whale-watch boat or an ecotourism cruise. The field is wide open for the organization of local trips, especially for the benefit of persons of low income. Opportunities may be limited in order to preserve the sanctuary character of the environment. There are also several Federally or State managed Marine Sanctuaries in coastal waters of the United States where one can go to see marine mammals and learn about them.  Some of the Federal Sanctuaries include the Channel Islands in California, the Florida Keys, the Gulf of the Farallones in California, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and the Olympic Coast of Washington.

There is a lively market for educational films, articles, and books about marine mammals. One attractive field is photographing the animals in their natural underwater habitats.

It is important to remember that the live study of living marine mammals in the wild is arduous for both you and the animals. Permits must be obtained before you can study a marine mammal close-up, though what constitutes "study" is debatable. The Marine Mammal Protection Act specifies that such permits must be obtained from the Secretary of Commerce with respect to seals (except walrus) and cetaceans and from the Secretary of the Interior with respect to sea otters, walrus, sirenians, and polar bears. To find out more about the permit process, visit the National Marine Fisheries Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service web sites.

If you want to become involved in one way or another with sea otters, seals, manatees, or whale, DO SO!  Although we are a bit biased, we believe that you will find a field that is exciting, interesting, and worthwhile.

*     *      *     *     *      *     *

This essay was created by Laura Drumm and Lisa Hiruki of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory. Special thanks to Victor B. Scheffer, mammalogist, for the vision and the thorough review. 

How can I find out about organizations concerned with marine mammal conservation?

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Information within the education website should not be cited in scientific journals or publications.

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