UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Winter 2005
The Dolphin Whisperer
When You're Living Your Childhood Dream, You Don't Mind the Fish Juice So Much
by Kelly Phillips

You’re 8 years old, and you’re really lucky, because you’re the one who gets picked to be in the dolphin show at SeaWorld. You feed the dolphin, wipe fish juice on your neon pink outfit — eliciting a big laugh from the audience — and for your big finish, you hug the dolphin. Guess what you want to be when you grow up? Well, duh. A dolphin trainer.

If you’re DeMar McGuire ’03, your dream comes true.

Now you work at SeaWorld San Diego. Practically all you do is play with dolphins. It’s a 9-to-5 job, and your work clothes consist of a purple and black wetsuit and a high-pitched whistle hanging around your neck. Part of your job is to build trust with the dolphins. You get to see Misty — who you must admit is your favorite — react with enthusiastic squeaks because of a behavior you’ve helped her learn.

Since you’re working in the Dolphin Interaction Program every day, you also get to help people make their own dreams come true. You help youngsters and moms, athletes and the physically challenged get in the water and give dolphin commands themselves. You love building relationships with the animals, and are certain that each has its own individual personality.

“When you’re trying to train a behavior or play with an animal, and you finally feel that connection and you see them look at you and trust you, that is an amazing feeling,” you say.

You’re clearly “on” when you’re with the dolphins. You argue with Sandy the dolphin about a behavior, playfully saying, “That’s not right” and “nuh-uh” as Sandy emphatically nods her head. You take delight in making the dolphin splash the people you’re working with. You kiss the dolphin. The children and the moms and the people who usually use a wheelchair get to do the same. Some people cry at their first touch of a dolphin.

“It’s very rewarding to be able to fulfill their dreams as much as my own,” you say. Perhaps what you really mean is that you can’t quite believe you’re living a dream come true.

But it’s not all fun and games: The fish juice is still there. In fact, that smelly stuff is sometimes the scent of where your day begins, in the Fish Preparation Center. There’s also a lot to remember, like making sure that someone counts all the environmental enrichment devices — seriously, that’s what dolphin toys are called here — and making sure all the animals have the proper amount of fish rationed out for them, so they don’t overeat when you reward them.

Sure, there are frustrations — on a recent day Toby isn’t doing back-flips so much as back-flops — but as soon as you get back to the one-on-one with the animal in the water, the problems melt away.

You loved your time at USD and miss it every day. You made really good friends and keep in close touch with them. Your supervisor tells you the friendships you’re forming at SeaWorld will be similarly lasting. You believe her. You’ve all worked really hard to make it to this elite level of working with the animals, and you’re part of a new team now.

It all goes back to when you were that 8 year old child, hugging a dolphin for the very first time. “It was really at that moment when I went,‘I want this job.’”

Wow, you’re not just lucky: You figured out what you wanted, worked hard for it and made it happen. You’re smart, too.