By Lauren Linhard –

Karen Schilling looked over her shoulder at the kids crowding around the dolphin pool and smiled.

She used to be one of those elementary students, oohing and aahing at the dolphins, asking how she could grow-up to be a trainer. Fast forward 20-some years later, and here she is – fielding questions about her dream job as a marine mammal aide at the National Aquarium and throwing smelly jelly cubes into the dolphin tank.

“This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was 7 years old,” Schilling said. “I saw ‘Free Willy’ and knew I wanted to work with marine mammals. I don’t remember wanting to do anything else.”

Schilling plays with one of the male dolphins during a feeding break.

Though Schilling admits to getting into the field later than most, she credits her almost irritating level of persistence for landing her dream career.

Only after volunteering in the fishes department for two years, while working a regular job as a gymnastics coach and sending monthly inquiries to the dolphin team, did she finally score an unpaid position working with the dolphins.

After that, it was a tough couple months of hauling fish and cleaning equipment before she was finally offered a full-time paid position in August 2015.

“This is definitely a passion job,” said Schilling, who now works 60 hours a week at two jobs. “You end up working a lot for maybe not as much money as you want to be paid, but the bond with the animals is why we’re here.”

Schilling interacts with one of the dolphins during enrichment.

That attitude, embraced by both Schilling and her team, is a huge part of being a successful career woman in such a small field, said Kate Rowe, media relations manager at the National Aquarium.

Alternative career paths, like becoming a marine mammal aide, can be low in opportunities and high in competition because of excess interest, Rowe said. It takes a special person to persevere in such an industry.

“It’s really cool to highlight these different STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, specifically for women and girls, that haven’t always been there,” said Rowe, adding that a number of the aquarium’s exhibit teams are led by women. “This is where the future is going – women have access to more opportunities than ever before.”

The marine mammal field actually began as male-dominated profession, through organizations like the Navy, Schilling said.

Some of the not-so-glamorous work Schilling was mentioning.

Although, Schilling added, people looking to work with marine mammals should keep in mind that there’s a lot more involved than working with the dolphins during the enrichment program, the least of which is constantly smelling like fish.

Most of the day normally involves hauling, cleaning and prepping fish as snacks for feeding sessions or as rewards for shows and training sessions. And then there’s the cleaning of each and every fish bucket, the decks, the toys, the piping – basically anything the fish may touch is cleaned to eliminate bacterial buildup.

“It’s a very physically demanding job, and it can be hard sometimes,” Schilling said. “But I am so proud of what I do. There were times when I thought it might never happen, but I stayed persistent and was in the right place at the right time.”

The most important things to remember, Schilling said, are to be your own advocate and do what makes you happy: “If it’s something that is going to make you happy, and being at the desk is that, then great, but if not, you will kick yourself if you don’t try.”

*Photos by Clare Becker*

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