“Every day I get to work with some of the coolest animals on Earth.”
Megan Saylor ’11 trains dolphins to detect and mark underwater mines. The marine biology major and former Division I swimmer spends a lot of time scuba diving and hanging out with dolphins. She loves every minute.
Q: What is your job title and how would you describe your job?
A: I am a marine mammal trainer for the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, California. Similar to how police use bomb-sniffing dogs for security, I train bottlenose dolphins to detect and mark underwater mines. (I can’t take photos at work, so I don’t have any photos of myself with dolphins!)
The U.S. Navy has found that the biological sonar of dolphins, called echolocation, makes them uniquely effective at locating sea mines so they can be avoided or removed. It is a very high-energy job that requires a lot of on the spot problem solving, comfort in the water and creativity.
Q: Are you in the water a lot?
A: We are mostly out of the water when we’re training. We work with the dolphins in the in-ocean pens that they inhabit (which exceed the standards in the Animal Welfare Act regulations), as well as by boat. We are very unique in that we actually do a lot of open ocean training, which means the dolphins are trained to follow the boat out into the open ocean and stay with the boat.
We do get in the water with them on occasion, but this is mostly reinforcement for the dolphins after they have a good session (some really seem to enjoy it, kind of like a reward).
Q: What is the coolest part of your job?
A: I get to do a lot of scuba diving for my job, which is pretty unique. I have my Advanced Open Water Scuba Certification through PADI and hope to continue on to gaining my Rescue and DiveMaster certification.
Hands down though, the coolest part of my job is actually working with the dolphins. They are so intelligent and each one has a different personality. It’s fun getting to know them and watch their progress.
Q: What internships or jobs led to this position?
A: Deep down I think I knew even before I came to college that this is what I wanted to do, I just wasn’t sure exactly the path I would take to get there.
During college, I spent two summers working part-time at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for Jack Hanna’s animal promotions department. This was a very unique job that allowed me to work with a very wide range of animals. I landed the job through a good family friend from home (I’m from Ohio). I asked her for advice in how to enter the marine mammal field/what internships I should pursue and she ended up offering me a job for the summer.
However in the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to work with marine animals (specifically marine mammals), so I applied to work at the South Carolina Aquarium. My senior year at the College of Charleston, I accepted a part-time position as an educator, then when I graduated, I worked there full time for a year.
Q: How did you get your position as a marine mammal trainer?
A: Due to the extremely small field, these jobs tend to be very competitive and open positions are usually very limited. Most jobs require at least six months to a year of hands-on marine mammal experience. In order to obtain this experience, you usually have to complete an internship program, which are almost all 40 hours a week and completely unpaid.
I applied to several internships all across the country and ended up choosing the internship program with the U.S. Navy in San Diego, Cali. I packed up my life, and moved cross-country. I completed my six-month internship, but did not get immediately hired. Instead of moving home to Ohio, I chose to stay in San Diego and work for a small marine biology education camp for kids called SeaCamp San Diego.
Eight months later I got the call from the Navy, asking me to come aboard full time as a marine mammal trainer. I gladly accepted and have been working there now for just over a year.
Q: How do you find internships or jobs in the marine mammal field?
A: I actually found out about the Navy internship by another close family friend. However the International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association website is a very good resource in finding marine mammal internships and jobs. I believe you have to acquire a membership to see the postings (which is very discounted for current college students), but completely worth it. Another great place to look is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Q: How did the College of Charleston prepare you for your career?
A: Almost all of our training plans are constructed using the concept of operant conditioning, thus psychology courses are very helpful in this career field, so my general education requirements came in handy.
Additionally, for two years I was a member of the College of Charleston swim and dive team. I am in the water almost daily for my job, so having a strong swimming history definitely makes me more comfortable when scuba diving in the open ocean.
My favorite professor was Antony Harold (biology) and it turns out that one of my co-workers also graduated from the College and had Dr. Harold for Biology of Fishes. Talk about a small world!
Q: What advice would you offer current students?
A: Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. No matter how small the job field, no matter how competitive or improbable the circumstances, if you want something bad enough, go for it! I did, and I certainly don’t regret it.