Discover Your Island

Study Abroad Program Provides Students with Dolphin Research, Hands-On Training as a Marine Mammal Specialist

August 17, 2015

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A group of 13 Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi students and one teaching assistant (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi student, Kevin Locke) spent the summer in Riviera Maya in the only program that blends one-of-a-kind dolphin research and hands-on animal care.

Elizabeth Jensen, Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Life Sciences at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and students who participated in the program returned on August 7.

The program, which partners with Dolphinaris – an educational and interactive dolphin facility – and emphasizes research and conservation, aims to provide students with extensive training as a marine mammal specialist. Student researchers worked directly with Dolphinaris’ dolphins and received instruction from highly skilled trainers and staff. Dolphinaris provided the students with unprecedented and extremely unique opportunities.

“The most important thing about this course is that students got real-life, hands-on experience with marine mammals that they would not get anywhere else,” said Jensen, who led the course.  “They assisted in diet preparation as well as learned guest relations and public speaking. Students also got hands-on time with the dolphins every single day, and helped to effectively communicate educational talking points for Dolphinaris guests during orientations and interaction programs that educate visitors.”

The program also provides students with a strong foundation of dolphin biology, physiology, and behavior, conservation issues, and other pertinent issues for a more comprehensive understanding of dolphins. Students also participated in lectures and research paper discussions to get more exposure to the field of marine mammals.

Students gained skills in behavior modification while obtaining a working, hands-on understanding of operant conditioning techniques with bottlenose dolphins. They also became knowledgeable in many aspects in the highly specialized field of dolphin care, husbandry, and medical procedure, as well as how to communicate research results and conservation to a public that may know little about wildlife.

Record keeping, life support, water quality, and all other relative functions in the daily operations of a dolphin facility were addressed. The course exposed students to the benefits of research in managed care facilities. Students actively participated in gathering baseline information about healthy body conditions in bottlenose dolphins, as Dolphinaris offers optimum conditions for their dolphins.

Each student’s performance at Dolphinaris was evaluated and graded. There were written exams, daily journal entries, and a presentation about a topic of interest to Dolphinaris staff in the classroom. Students each received a “certificate of completion” at the end of the course. 

This is the second summer that Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Dolphinaris have run this course. Because of the experience students gained, they now have an edge over others that are pursuing a career with marine mammals. Two students from last year’s class were hired by Dolphinaris and several other students have gone on to further their careers at other marine mammal facilities.   

Dolphinaris first opened in 1999 in Cancun. The company has five facilities that house Atlantic, Pacific, and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and the research done there provides important knowledge for dolphin populations worldwide. Dolphinaris also has pioneered medical advances for the dolphins in their care.

The Riviera Maya facility opened in 2010, and has marine mammal specialists and a group of staff veterinarians on site that specialize in marine mammal medicine.