Killer Whale Trainer  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotAccording to Tracy Karmuza, a trainer at the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, killer whale trainers prepare whale food, clean tanks, watch for signs of illness or injury, monitor eating patterns and changes in behavior, and keep records.

Before Keiko, the whale made famous by the movie Free Willy, was returned to his native waters in Iceland, Karmuza had to make sure Keiko was healthy and keep up his activity level. They did training sessions to keep him mentally active and stimulated. "It's important because these are very intelligent animals!"

dotTraining often consists of making signals, like whistle blows, to alert the whale to perform a certain behavior. "Training is a slow process," says trainer Dave Elliot. "But everything revolves around the mental health of the whales. It affects their physical health and their attitude in the pool."

Along with monitoring seven whales' health, Elliot also trains them for public performances. "We train them to do aerial jumps, to squirt water from their blowholes, to splash with their tails and to interact with an audience member, like getting a kiss."

dot"We're completely responsible for the health and welfare of the whales," says Anne Kent. Kent used to train a killer whale called Bjossa at Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, Canada. Bjossa was moved to another aquarium in April 2001 and passed away later that year.

Kent designed the training routines and kept up with the husbandry (the management of the animals), took blood and urine samples to track hormones, and checked and cleaned teeth and eyes.

The training routines mirror natural behaviors you'd see in the wild. Stage experience and announcing is part of the job, too.

Working with killer whales means working outside and working in and around water. "You've got to keep your energy up for the whale, even if it's freezing cold," says Kent.

dotIt's a regular 40-hour workweek -- 44 during high tourism season -- but it's not a 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday job. "Your shift can start at 8 a.m. and go until 4 p.m., or it can start at 2 p.m. and go until 10 p.m.," says Karmuza.

"And you're always on call," says Elliot. "Especially if a whale gets sick or is pregnant. Because we've had a new baby whale every year for the last six years, we schedule 24-hour, round-the-clock whale watches. And someone has to be available."

dotMost of the work takes place around the tanks and pools -- or scuba diving with the whale! But trainers also write up reports about what happened during their training sessions.

dotElliot has trained whales for 20 years. He says the current training philosophy leans towards positive reinforcement.

"We used to train whales like land animals, but they don't respond the same way. They're more intelligent. Now we only reinforce positive behavior and completely ignore negative responses.

"If our whale is aggressive to another animal in the pool, we direct the whale to a closed off area to cool off. Before, we would have reacted to the bad behavior. It seems to work. There are fewer injuries for both the trainers and the whales and it creates a better, calmer environment."

At a Glance

Train and care for orcas

  • Training is time-consuming work
  • You'll be responsible for the whales' health
  • A university education in marine biology is your best bet