Beyond Vassar

Working with the Fishes

By Mally Anderson

Justin Mertz ’06 wakes up at 5 a.m. and runs three miles to work along the Pacific Ocean as the sun rises so he can get to work by 6 a.m. He and nine other interns have four hours to examine and sort 35,000 fish to supply one day’s worth of food to an array of dolphins, penguins, and sea lions. It’s just an average morning’s work at Sea Life Park on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Mertz currently works as a marine mammal intern at Sea Life Park. After graduation, Mertz spent a year working at a horse stable and as an animal care specialist for Vassar’s biology department before deciding that he wanted to work with marine animals — not in pharmacological lab work, as he initially thought. “I discovered that I much prefer to be outside doing physical activity,” he says.

Mertz was looking at marine mammal rehabilitation facilities when Lily Faber ’08, a Vassar friend from Florida, suggested that he apply to Miami Seaquarium. He spent six months working as an intern and then as an aquarist there, maintaining the fish and invertebrate collections (including a 250,000-gallon reef tank and a channel housing 22 sharks) and training a baby nurse shark to be used for educational presentations. He soon decided that he would prefer to work with mammals rather than sharks. “I realized that my real interest lay in behavioral modification of marine mammals, and I applied for an internship at Sea Life Park,” says Mertz. So earlier this year, he packed up and moved more than 4,000 miles from Miami to Hawaii.

At Sea Life Park, Mertz spends his days in the company of ten Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, five California sea lions, and one wholphin (a bottlenose dolphin/false killer whale hybrid; only two are known to exist). His daily routine involves cleaning tanks and supplies and participating in the educational presentations that attract visitors to Sea Life Park. From the water, Mertz speaks to guests (often in Japanese, which he has starting learning) and answers questions, while simultaneously keeping the animals’ attention. As he gains more experience, he will also be able to ask the animals for “behaviors” — “what people not familiar with operant conditioning might call ‘tricks’ — which,” Mertz says, “is an offensive word in the training field.”

Mertz considers education an important part of his work. “I want people to see how incredibly complex, resourceful, and almost human these animals are,” he says. “The thing that really interested me in marine mammals, after working with them, is the way they behave. When they are given toys to play with, these animals find new and interesting things to do.” For example, the dolphins Mertz works with regularly make up new games, blow bubbles, and throw temper tantrums. “I want people to care about these animals because we are destroying their habitats at an astronomical rate,” he says. “If I can convince one person in a hundred to do something to help save the oceans, then I’m doing a pretty good job.”

Mertz hopes to continue working with marine mammals in the long term, preferably at an interactive facility where people can enter the water and get to know the animals. He expects that he might study for a master’s degree in animal behavior or animal psychology in the future, but for now he’s enjoying seeing new places and learning new things. In his own words, “I’m getting to spend time doing something that I really care about.”