I want to work with orca - some organisations recommend gaining work experience in aquariums, whereas others don't. What do you think would be the best recommendation?
When making a decision whether to gain work experience in an aquarium or not, we have to think about the animals that we are wishing to work with. Let's think about orca (but the same can be applied for other marine mammals). You have to ask yourself three questions:
1) Do I think that orca are okay to be kept in captivity?
2) If not, is working with these animals more important to me than their welfare?
3) Can I learn anything from these animals in an artificial environment that can be applied to my ultimate dream of working with them in a wild environment?
To be able to answer these questions, you have to do a lot of literature searching and a lot of reading to learn everything you can about this species (or whichever species you are hoping to work with) - about their physiology, behaviour, sociality, intelligence, range, diet, longevity, reproduction and how captivity impacts these, etc. You name it, you need to know it!
You also need to bare in mind that many orca experts (many names that I am sure you would recognise) from around the world do not agree that orca should be kept in captivity or that anything can be learned from keeping them in an artificial environment, based on their years of experience working with these animals in the wild.
It is more accessible than ever to work with marine mammals in the wild. You can become a medic in the UK with our sponsors British Divers Marine Life Rescue (www.bdmlr.org) and gain hands on experience helping wild cetaceans and seals (and in other countries with other rescue organisations), and you can also apply for experience working in a seal (or other animal) sanctuary, learning how to care for and rehabilitate animals for release back into the wild. You can join an organisation that provides opportunities to work with marine mammals in the wild, such as training as a marine mammal surveyor with Organisation Cetacea in the UK (www.orcaweb.org.uk) and joining them on their boat trips and cruise ships surveying and educating about marine mammals that you encounter. You can write to one of the many orca (or other marine mammal) research projects from around the world and ask if you can go and spend some time working with them. Do some research and find out what options are available to you for the country that you are hoping to work in.
Whatever you decide to do, we strongly recommend that you learn everything you can about the species that you are wishing to work with before you go and do it.
To help you on your way with learning about orca, we have put together a list of websites and resources that may be of interest:
"Orca of the World" by Orca Aware
"Orca: The Whale Called Killer" by Erich Hoyt
"Swimming with Orca" by Dr. Ingrid Visser
"Whale and Dolphins: Cognition, Culture, Conservation and Human Perceptions" by Philippa Brakes & Mark Simmonds
"Listening to Whales" by Alexandra Morton
"Death at SeaWorld" by David Kirby
Orca Aware does not recommend gaining work experience with marine mammals in an aquarium or zoo but believes that it is up to the individual to decide.
You do not have to have a special degree to work with orca.
If you want to become an orca researcher and are thinking about studying for a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree at university, then biological science subjects like Marine Biology or Zoology will stand you in good stead to pursue a scientific career working with killer whales. If you already have a degree and are thinking about taking your academic career to the next level by gaining a Master of Science (MSc) degree and/or doctorate (PhD), you can seek a course which will allow you to further specialise in studying marine animals and specifically orca.
There is also another career path that you can choose to take if you want to work with orca. You can begin by volunteering with a research, conservation or education project.
You can also combine both an academic career with gaining voluntary experience outside of university. Both practical and academic routes have their advantages and disadvantages. However, they are both as equally beneficial when pursuing a career working with orca!
Get in touch with orca research projects from around the world, both in your home country (if there are any) and internationally. Send them an email which tells them a little bit about yourself, why you are passionate about orca and what you have achieved academically and practically so far or are planning to achieve at a future date. Ask them if they have an internship programme or if they are willing to take on volunteers. Let them know what skills and strengths you could bring to the project and what you are hoping to learn from them. You will find contact details for most projects on their respective websites.
You can also write to research projects which work with other cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) species and marine mammals. It is all worthwhile experience and will count toward your future career.
And remember - you can get involved with research projects online by interacting and participating on social networking pages. By doing this, you will get to know the orca research projects and the individuals who work for them. It is also a great way to talk with like-minded people and learn about orca!
There have been no confirmed reports of orca ever attacking humans in the wild. Only in captivity has this occurred.
Each country has its own laws and regulations which govern how you may interact with orca in the wild. In many countries and states, it is illegal to approach too closely to orca, either by boat and other watercraft or when swimming. If you do come across orca, many laws stipulate that you must keep outside of an exclusion zone (for example, in US waters you are not allowed to approach closer than 200 metres). This also applies for if you are swimming in the water and where able to do so, you must get out.
It is incredibly important that you research these laws for any given country or state because they will differ depending on where you are. By not being aware of regulations, you could put yourself and the orca into a dangerous situation and you will also be liable to receive any penalties set out by the country or state, (such as a hefty fine and/or jail sentence). In many countries, to be able to swim with orca you must have a special permit provided by the government.
Orca are top ocean predators and the largest apex predator to roam the earth since the dinosaurs and so they should be treated respectfully.