5 a.m. comes early, but for once in your life you’re excited to hear the alarm and jump out of bed. Within minutes, you’re on a shuttle heading to the marina in Sarasota, FL, where a team of veterinarians, wildlife biologists, and grad students are loading up several boats for the day’s work.
You can’t help but smile as you realize that all your somewhat childish but still very real dreams of swimming with wild dolphins might just come true today.
It’s still dark out when the boats pull out into Sarasota Bay, and even though you’re comfortable in a swimsuit and t-shirt on this balmy summer morning, the mug of coffee steaming in your hands is still much appreciated.
As the sun peeks out over the mangrove coast, one of the spotters up above calls out, “I think we’ve got them!” All eyes turn to where he is pointing, and sure enough, a pod of bottlenose dolphins is playing near the surface about a hundred yards off.
Now the team jumps into action, and the smaller boats begin an intricate dance as they attempt to lure the dolphins closer to shallow water.
An hour later, the moment has arrived. You’re chest-deep in the water, arms outstretched, and on top of those arms is a juvenile dolphin, nervous but trusting, gazing at you and chirping excitedly. He’s subjected to a blood draw and tiny tissue biopsy before being released out to the rest of his family.
It seems like a big ordeal just to get some blood and tissues, but today’s operation is part of one of the longest ongoing research studies on free-ranging wild dolphins in the world, and the analysis of these samples will contribute to our ability to protect and understand these incredible animals.
MarVet Marine Animal Medicine Workshops
So what was I doing assisting with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program? Sadly I only got to spend one day working with the team, but it was one day out of an enlightening two week MarVet program that I participated in during the summer of 2006.
I had just completed my second year of veterinary school and would be heading to San Diego immediately afterward for my externship with the Navy Marine Mammal Program, so this training course on marine animal medicine fit the bill perfectly.
The hardest part for me was deciding whether or not it would be worthwhile to actually pay for this type of experience. I was so used to free participation and only funding my travel and living expenses on all my other veterinary experiences, so this would be unique in that there was a tuition fee for the program itself, not including the other regular expenses. Did I really want or need to pay over a thousand dollars for the education and training I would receive over the course of two weeks? I finally decided to take the plunge and do it, which in reality was only possible due to my participation the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program.
I do think that I could have gotten a similar experience with a regular externship at SeaWorld, the Marine Mammal Center or any number of aquariums around the country. I realized, though, that MarVet was something I could do after only two years of school and one that wouldn’t be quite so competitive or require the same years-in-advance planning as those other opportunities.
What Was the Workshop Really Like?
The program consisted of a combination of classroom lectures, hands-on animal training at the Mote Marine Laboratory and other local facilities, and the field research experience with the dolphin program. I got to practice blood draws on pelicans, sea turtles, and dolphins, and practiced physical exams on these animals along with manatees and some fish.
The participants were mostly veterinary students, but there were also some practicing vets who were interested in pursuing other career options and enrolled in the MarVet program as an introduction to marine animal medicine. Most of us were Americans, but there were also a couple from other countries, and the program is open to anyone in the veterinary field from all over the world.
I would recommend it for any vet students or veterinarians who have a little extra money to spend (or who can live frugally enough during the school year to have some loan proceeds left over!) and want to get a short introduction to a marine animal veterinary career.
You’ll get to interact with unique animals, spend some hours in the classroom learning about the unique physiology and medical concerns for these species, and perhaps most importantly, meet and interact with a number of genuine marine animal veterinarians. It’s these personal connections that will probably be most valuable if you end up wanting to pursue more training in the field.
How You Can Get Involved
There are two workshops scheduled for this summer: one on the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico based at Dolphin Discovery & Xcaret, and the other on Grand Cayman based at St. Matthew’s University School of Veterinary Medicine. The courses are almost filled up, but it’s possible that some slots will still be available.
If you have more time to plan, the workshops for the summer of 2014 will be announced later this year, so keep an eye on the MarVet website!
I’m quite happy to answer any more specific questions you have about my experience with the program — just leave a comment below or get in touch on my contact page. For questions about this summer’s programs, you’re better off getting in touch with Dr. Tarpley, the program coordinator, on MarVet’s contact page.
Does this sound like a program you would be interested in? Do you think it is worth it to pay for getting this type of experience?