Marine Mammal Veterinary Training for Vets, Vet Students, and Undergrads

Let your mind wander for a moment, and drift away from the dreary winter day of study or work you’re actually stuck in. I’m going to tell you about an awesome opportunity for ALL my readers: vets, vet students, and undergrads.

It’s a bright sunny morning, cool but comfortable, as you walk out on the floating docks in the San Diego Bay. A splash to your right catches your attention, and just then a sleek gray bottlenose dolphin flies out of the water, whistling at you happily before completing a graceful arc and disappearing into the deep blue depths. Across the water you hear the excited barking of sea lions ready for breakfast. Soak it in. This is your life.

Or could be, I should say, if you apply for an internship with the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) in San Diego, California!

The NMMF is the civilian organization representing the Navy Marine Mammal Program. You’ve probably heard rumors that the Navy uses dolphins and sea lions for their underwater expertise, and the rumors are true! These incredible creatures are still better than any man-made machine for certain underwater tasks. The Navy has been working with them for over 50 years, and the scientists and veterinarians working with the program have contributed a TON of valuable research to our knowledge and understanding of these animals.

Fortunately for all of us whose career dreams routinely alternated between veterinarian, dolphin trainer, and marine biologist, the NMMF now has a number of training programs available for the public.

I was able to spend six weeks there as a vet student doing an externship and had an amazing time participating in all sorts of procedures and routine care for the animals.

For Vets and 4th Year Vet Students: Veterinary Internship with NMMF & SeaWorld San Diego

The deadline for this unique opportunity is coming up fast: February 28, 2014. But wait, don’t roll your eyes and think, “That’s impossible!” just yet. Yes, it will be a major undertaking to get your application together in time, but this would totally be worth the effort.

This yearlong internship program is relatively new, and it has not been very widely advertised. If you know anything about zoo and wildlife medicine internships and residencies, you’ll know that they are very competitive and can be hard to get into.

This one is not part of the regular Veterinary Internship & Residency Matching Program and it is also not advertised on the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians list, which is one of the other primary sites for this kind of experience.

All of that means that you probably have a pretty good chance of getting accepted to this program if you can get your application submitted on time.

The internship is a joint effort of SeaWorld San Diego and the NMMF, so you will split your time between SeaWorld and the Navy docks just a few miles away. You’ll get exposure to an incredible diversity of species and some of the highest quality aquatic animal medicine being practiced in the world.

The position comes with a salary of about $30,000 plus generous benefits. You also have to be a U.S. citizen and be eligible for a secret clearance. You won’t be rolling in money but that should definitely be enough to get by. And you should have a pretty good chance at a residency position with the zoo/wildlife program of your choice coming out of this.

For 3rd & 4th Year Vet Students: Veterinary Medical Externship

This is what I did while I was in vet school. It is set up as a typical externship program. Basically, you spend all day hanging out with the seven full-time veterinarians who work with the NMMF while participating in all the medical and research activities of the program. I got to do a ton of blood draws, ultrasounds, and physical exams on the dolphins and sea lions.

My favorite activity was probably preparing a couple of dolphins for an overseas deployment and getting them loaded up into a huge C-130 for their long trip. It could have been quite the logistical nightmare, but they have it down to a perfect science.

Unfortunately there isn’t any funding for the externship program. That said, you should be able to find a way to utilize the small research project you’re required to do during the externship to get funding through your school or one of the programs I’ve discussed on the site.

I was lucky because I did it as one of my required “Active Duty Training” experiences as part of my Health Professions Scholarship Program for the Army. That means I got paid a regular officer’s salary and also had travel and living expenses reimbursed.

There is a rolling application process for the externship program, so you’ll have to get in touch with the program administrator to find out more details.

For Undergraduates and 1st & 2nd Year Vet Students: Animal Care and Training Internship

I got to know some of these interns during my veterinary externship and they were all having the time of their lives. Although it seemed like a lot of their time was spent preparing diets (not for anyone who can’t stand the smell of fish!), they also got to participate regularly in all the other activities of the program: training, husbandry, medical care, open ocean exercises, etc. It is a pretty formal internship program with lectures and field trips included, and you need to be able to arrange to receive college credit in order to participate.

There are three terms: spring, summer, and fall, and the application deadlines are October 1, March 1, and June 1, respectively.

In Summary

Phew, that turned into an epic post! But I had to get the information out there, especially for the yearlong veterinary internship. That is an awesome opportunity for someone to snag.

I know I have a bunch of vet student and pre-vet readers who should also consider applying for the externship and internships.

This is your chance to work very closely with marine mammals, just like you’ve always dreamed about.

Before I send you back from your daydreams to the cold wintry day we started out with, just answer one question:

What’s holding you back from actually doing this?

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34 Responses to “Marine Mammal Veterinary Training for Vets, Vet Students, and Undergrads”

  1. stefileopardi December 7, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    Hi… I’m Just so angry that most of your post are only possible for US vets… here in Europe we don’t have such possibilities, both economically and professionally!

  2. Elliott Garber December 7, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    I know, I’m sorry! I’m trying to get more connected to the community of uncommon vets outside the U.S. so that I can help bring a wider variety of opportunities for non-Americans as well. If you have any suggestions of any opportunities in Europe that i can write about please let me know!

    • stefileopardi December 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

      I will organize ideas and I will contact you.. I know about some possibilities when you are a student, not in Italy, we can’t do anything, but everything is harder once you are graduated… But, never give up, right?

      • Elliott December 15, 2012 at 11:07 pm #

        Exactly! There are always opportunities for those who are willing to work hard and make sacrifices. I can’t wait to hear from you!

  3. Karla December 8, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    Hi Elliot, I did the externship at Seaworld and loved it, I applied for one at the Navy but just US citizen can apply, just so everyone knows 🙁

  4. Elliott December 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Hey Karla, that’s awesome about the SeaWorld externship! I would love to hear more about your experience there. Which one were you at? I know, sorry about the U.S. citizen thing…

    • Karla December 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

      Hey Elliot, I did 6 weeks in SeaWorld San Diego during the summer of 2011, what can I say? AMAZING! I was the first non-US student I believe…well, the first latin for sure! 😛 Anyways, lots of hands on experience, and not just only marine mammals, I worked with a variety of birds as well, which I enjoyed a lot! My presentation at the end of the program was about Proventricular Dilatation Disease in birds. 🙂

      • Elliott December 15, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

        Sounds amazing! Maybe you can share some more details about the SeaWorld externship here for everyone?

  5. Natalie Maletz December 13, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    hey this is a great website however is there any oppotunities for british students anywhere?

    • Elliott December 15, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

      Natalie, thanks for saying hello! A lot of the externships and training opportunities are open to students from anywhere, including the UK. Unfortunately I have an American bias in my knowledge and experiences since that’s the system I’ve come up through. Several of the UK vet schools are now accredited through the AVMA so that makes their students eligible for even more scholarships, etc. What kind of opportunities are you interested in? If you contact me I will do my best to help you track something down…

      • Natalie Maletz December 17, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

        hi thanks for your reply 🙂 yes i think my uni is AVMA accredited so would good if that could help. i’m looking for something around the marine mammal area that i could use for my clinical studies in my 3rd, 4th and 5th year. (EMS) like I said earlier i haven’t been able of find anything for British students so any advice would be a great help 🙂

  6. Anri April 22, 2013 at 1:15 am #

    So jealous!! I plan to apply for the veterinary externship before December but unfortunately I didn’t realize they had an internship program too which I would have probably applied for. For the non-US citizen students…have you tried looking in South Africa? They are tons of wildlife and conservation opportunities there!

    • Elliott April 22, 2013 at 11:40 am #

      I hope you get to do the Navy externship, Anri! It’s a really unique place. Go ahead and get in touch with them now — for this kind of thing the earlier you can get started the better. Thanks for the tips on opportunities in South Africa, too. I still need to write up my externship at Kruger National Park!

  7. Kayla Reece July 31, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    Hey! What should I go to college for to be able to do this intershipss?

    • Elliott August 3, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

      Hi Kayla, the most obvious answer would be that you should study in some sort of marine biology program. However, there are many people who go into this type of work who studied more general biology or zoology or ecology and are still successful. The most important things are to excel academically in whatever you study and to develop good relationships with your teachers and other supervisors so that they will be happy to recommend you for unique opportunities like this one.

  8. umer khalifa November 1, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    Hello Elliott
    Hope you doing good
    This is umer from India. Rite now I am in final year of M.SC marine biology. I am looking for opportunities at abroad to pursue after completing my post graduation by 2014. Could you please let me know if you have or know any opportunity.
    Waiting for your reply

    • Elliott November 5, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

      Hey Umer, congrats on making it to your final year of the MSc! Are you looking for a PhD program? There are lots of them in the US, UK, New Zealand, and Australia that come with funding and a small stipend. It just depends on what you want to study. Check out and similar sites. Good luck!

  9. Jake November 20, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    What is a marine mammal vet’s salary?

    • Elliott November 21, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

      Jake, it can really be very dependent on who your employer is and how long you’ve been working. The range is probably from about $30,000 (for a new grad doing an internship) to maybe around $150,000 (for a senior vet in government, academia, or industry). Most marine mammal veterinarians are probably somewhere in the $70-100k range.

      • Kelsey July 3, 2016 at 10:09 pm #

        THANK YOU

        -KJ, Marine Biologist and DVM Candidate

  10. Jess Roberts December 17, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    Hi elliott!
    You left a post on my blog a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been doing a bit of research about wildlife jobs and this post came up. Im currently doing some of my final year placement at sea world on the gold coast in Australia (my home town) and am really passionate about wildlife, marine wildlife in particular. I have loved my time at sea world and don’t want to see it come to an end. Ive been looking at potential job opportunities and internships in wildlife medicine. Do you have any advice for me or any potential job opportunities you know off? I will be graduating as a fully qualified vet in november 2014 🙂 Hope to hear from you!!
    Jess – surfingvet xxx

    • Elliott December 26, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

      Jess, thanks for your comment! That sounds like an awesome experience, and I can totally understand your desire to continue with further training in the marine animal field. You probably know that most U.S. internships and residencies start in our summer: usually June or July. There are a ton of really cool one-year internships or three-year residency programs in aquatic animal medicine or just wildlife in general. Have you explored the websites of the AAWV, AAZV, and VIRMP yet? That will give you a good idea of what is available. You can also check out the AVMA and Ohio State University‘s externship listing databases, which contain lots of information and contacts for shorter placements.

  11. Ali January 2, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

    hello sir i am ali from Pakistan i am fresh graduate in 2012 i want apply for intern ship program how i can ??

    • Elliott January 7, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

      Hi Ali, unfortunately that particular internship is not currently open! You should check out the websites I linked to in the post above for a lot more similar opportunities. Good luck!

  12. Ednee Yoshioka February 13, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

    Hi Elliott!

    Thank you so much for posting about this! I’ve heard about the program, but never first hand how the experience was from a vet student perspective! What does the application process entail? I am really interested in doing this externship after I am applying to also do an externship at TMMC in Sausalito when I am a fourth year too.

    • Elliott February 13, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Ednee. I had a great time during my time with the program and definitely encourage you to apply. It’s now been so long since I was there that I’m sure the application processed has changed. Your best bet for more information is to e-mail the program administrator through the contact details on their website. Good luck!

  13. Casey R. July 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    Hi Elliot! Love the blog, I am very interested in the Navy program as an internship and possible career. I was curious, is there an acutual application form I need fill out and send in? Or just my resume, letter of intent, and proof of citizenship? Thank you!

    • Casey R. July 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

      Also, would October 1 be the deadline for the 2015 spring semester?

  14. Alexandra October 12, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    interesting !!! I am a freshman in FL studying Marine biology and im looking for marine veterinarian programs for masters degree. do you know some schools that offer that? can you tell me which ones? thank you.

  15. Ashlan September 9, 2015 at 11:37 pm #

    Hi Elliot I was just wondering what college you attended for your degree in veterinary medicine.


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