A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Letter to a Young Dolphin Lover

dolphin-bites-girl-121012Last week, we wrote about the latest “accident” at SeaWorld, where a dolphin bit 8-year-old Jillian at the petting/feeding pool. Jillian really cares about dolphins and said that she wanted to be a dolphin trainer when she grows up. So we asked our friend and colleague Samantha Berg, who had the same dream as Jillian, to write to her about the experience of working as a trainer at SeaWorld. Here’s Sam’s letter:

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Dear Jillian,

sam-berg-beluga-121012My name is Samantha Berg, and I used to be a SeaWorld animal trainer. (That’s me in the photo,) In fact, just like you, it was my dream when I was your age.

I saw the video of what happened to you at SeaWorld when you were bitten by one of the “petting pool” dolphins. That’s a very scary experience, and I’m glad you are OK.

I also saw that you still want to be a dolphin trainer. I’m impressed that your injury hasn’t frightened you away from your dream. But I want to tell you a few things about captive dolphins and about what it was like for me working at SeaWorld.

One of the first things I learned was that we had to say things to the visitors every day that we knew weren’t true about the health and well-being of the animals – probably some of the same things you heard when you were a visitor there. We could only tell them certain sugar-coated facts about the animals – things that SeaWorld wanted them to know.

But did you know, for example, that the dolphin who bit you was chronically food and nutrition deprived? Dolphins at SeaWorld are fed a diet of dead, frozen fish that doesn’t provide the nutrients and water that they need to stay healthy. Many of them get sick or irritable and develop behavior problems. All the animals at these marine parks need to take extra vitamins that are stuffed into the gills of their first fish of the day. And many of them are on antibiotics, anti-fungals, anti-acids and even anti-depressants. There’s nowhere for a dolphin to run and hide, so they fight with each other more often.

Did you look closely at the animals in the “petting pool”? You may have noticed that they are all covered with lines in their skin known as “rake” marks. This comes from dolphins attacking each other with their teeth. In a tiny blue pool, there’s nowhere for a dolphin to run and hide, so they fight with each other more often – just like you might if you could never get away from some of the other kids at the school playground. I once saw a dolphin starve herself to death because she was bullied by other dolphins to throw up her food. She lost so much weight that she died despite the efforts of the veterinary staff.

And did you ever wonder how the dolphins got in captivity in the first place? When you’re a bit older, ask your parents if you can see the movie “The Cove” featuring former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry. The movie goes behind-the-scenes to a place in Japan where dolphins are captured and separated from their families. The prettiest and youngest of them are sold to marine parks around the world, and the rest are brutally killed. Their meat is even fed to school children.

Most of them die while they’re still quite young. One of the worst things for me was seeing animals I loved dying while they were still young.Most zoos and aquariums in the United States have captive breeding programs, so most of the younger dolphins were born in captivity. All of SeaWorld’s original animals were captured from the wild, but whales and dolphins don’t thrive in captivity. So SeaWorld is working right now with the Georgia Aquarium to bring in 18 wild beluga whales who were captured in Russia, so they can breed them, too. 

Once they’re in captivity, the dolphins and whales learn that if they want to be fed, they have to perform or be viewed or touched by visitors every day of the year. They never get time off and they never get to retire. All of SeaWorld’s dolphins die in captivity. None of them will ever see the ocean. And most of them die while they’re still quite young. One of the worst things for me was seeing animals I loved dying while they were still young.

Life for dolphins in the wild is very different, and far more interesting and exciting, than anything you’ll ever see at SeaWorld.

So, what should you do? There are some wonderful careers for young people who want to work with dolphins. I asked Dr. Lori Marino, who’s one of the world’s top experts on dolphin intelligence and self-awareness, and here’s what she said:

One thing you can do is become a scientist who goes out and studies dolphins in the ocean. All the best research these days is being done in the ocean by people watching their natural behavior and, in some cases, swimming with them and being accepted as visitors to their pods.

dolphin-wild-121012Did you know that by studying dolphins and whales in the wild we now know that many of them have cultural traditions? Like us, they pass on learned habits and behaviors from one generation to the next. Think of how exciting it would be to discover a new culture!

Plus if you truly love dolphins and whales and are concerned about their welfare, you could learn more about ocean conservation. The oceans are in a lot of trouble these days due to global warming, oil spills and other pollution. So we need scientists interested in conservation of both the animals and their habitats.

Right now, the best thing you can do is learn as much as you can about marine mammals. When it comes to deciding on a career with dolphins and whales, you’ll need an advanced science degree. There are many exciting projects going on around the world involving dolphins, killer whales, blue whales, sea lions, walruses etc. and in a few years you can get involved as a volunteer or as an intern.

There are lots of places online where you can learn more about dolphins, Jillian. I’m sure you’ve found some of them already. Along with some friends, I’m part of a website called Voice of the Orcas. It’s run by four of us who were all once SeaWorld trainers, and we have many articles and links to help you learn about the plight of dolphins and whales in captivity.

There’s also a feature series here on this website, called Dolphins and Us.

One thing, though: When you go looking for websites about dolphins, look at them carefully to be sure they’re trying to protect dolphins in the wild, not working to keep them in captivity.

Good luck, Jillian, and I hope your hand is feeling better!


Samantha Berg, Former SeaWorld Trainer.