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What It Takes to Work Here: SeaWorld


So you think you can swim. How are your public speaking skills?

The entrance exam for the following employment includes a 67-meter freestyle swim, a 33-meter underwater swim, and a 7.3-meter free dive to retrieve a small weight at the bottom of a pool. That's part one. Your exam also includes a public-speaking test and a rigorous interview.

You'd be forgiven if you guessed this was part of training for the Navy Seals. It's not, though this job certainly has its share of drama and danger. The position in question is that of animal trainer at SeaWorld, training and performing with dolphins and orca whales. Just about any kid who's seen the show probably harbors some thoughts of one day becoming a trainer.

The job isn't easy to get. Few positions open up yearly and the competition is fierce for those rare opportunities. SeaWorld only employs about 100 animal trainers. To train and swim with dolphins and killer whales holds a je ne sais quoi of which few other jobs boast. It has athletic as well as artistic elements. SeaWorld makes the process long and arduous.

"It takes forever to get SeaWorld to even reply," said Annie Stickney, who, in her second try, passed the entrance exam in 2004 to become a dolphin trainer at SeaWorld's Discovery Cove. A week before she was supposed to start, SeaWorld Ohio closed and its trainers were transferred to Orlando, forcing the incoming Stickney out of a job. (Stickney is now General Manager, SEO and Development at Minyanville.)

SeaWorld requires marine biology coursework and previous experience with animal husbandry. Stickney met those requirements -- she studied behavioral neuroscience and marine biology at Gettysburg College -- then became a certified rescue diver and dolphin trainer in Bermuda. She applied for the SeaWorld job, and in the six months before receiving a response, trained daily for the rigorous swim test.

Her first call was at the SeaWorld in San Diego. Applicants have to pay their own way. SeaWorld simply asks you to show up at an early morning hour, the only thing needed: a bathing suit.

"It was very intimidating," said Stickney, who was then 22. Other trainers administer the test. Hers was a group of 15 people in search of one or two positions. Most were on their second or third attempts. "You're not really talking to anyone else," says Stickney. "You're out to beat them. You're out for blood."

The water temperature of the pool is frigid. If you don't pass a stage of the test your day is over. Stickney passed the first two but not the deep dive to retrieve a weight. "I came up and they walked me out," she said.

Stickney had to reapply and finally something opened up at Discovery Cove in Orlando. Those trainers wouldn't have to train orcas. Stickney passed the swim test and then passed the speech test, in which one has to memorize a script and recite it in front of an audience. The speech was the classic 10-minute long introduction to the Shamu show. Next, she met with the head trainer for a formal interview and was eventually offered a job.

After getting hired, trainers typically spend about a month getting to know the dolphins -- prepping their meals and feeding them, or doing some exercises -- before they're ready for a performance."Dolphins are like dogs in some ways. They won't respond to commands from people they don't know. And once they get to know you, they're extremely responsive. When you walk over to the pool, they swim over to say hello."

All new trainers go through an apprenticeship of a year or longer. Killer whale trainers may be apprentices for four years before doing waterwork segments.

SeaWorld officials couldn't be reached for comment, though its website describes the application process.

According to Stickney, a senior dolphin trainer earns a yearly salary of around $30,000, and most trainers are out of a job by the age of 35. "Trainers have to be young and fit," she said.

It's not about the money, but a measure of glory, which, sadly, has recently come at a high price. In February, one of SeaWorld's killer whales drowned a trainer in front of park guests. It was the third death linked to that particular orca, the six-ton Tilikum. As a result, trainer safety at SeaWorld has come under scrutiny. It's painfully clear that the magic of SeaWorld demands great sacrifices of its trainers.

"You have to love it," Stickney concludes. "You do it for the experience, for the pure love of the animal."

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