Kelly Marie O'Neill

Beluga Whale Trainer
Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration


General Career and Research Information…

What is your educational background?
I have a Bachelor's of Science in marine biology and a minor in Psychology from Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island.

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
I volunteered at Mystic Aquarium in 1996 and volunteered at New England Aquarium in 1997. In 1998, I moved to Tacoma, Washington, and did a 6-month internship at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. In 1998, I moved to Vallejo, California, and worked at Six Flags Marine World with dolphins and walruses. In 2000, I moved to Mystic, Connecticut, and have been working with the beluga whales at Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration ever since!

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Study hard and at the same time have fun (enjoy your learning)!  Every career is somehow related to science, so your career choices are endless!

On Belugas…

How and where do you conduct your work with belugas?
I work with three belugas whales in the Arctic Coast Exhibit right here at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work with belugas?
We train through operant conditioning (behavior modified by its consequences). The signal precedes the response, followed by the reinforcement. We primarily use positive reinforcement (a reinforcer is presented following the correct behavior, which increases the probability that the behavior will occur again).

What projects related to belugas are you currently involved in?
We are working closely with the research lab. Naku and Kela are giving voluntary blood samples. With these samples researchers are learning more about the whales' immune system and are currently developing the technology to boost the immune system. We have also trained our belugas to wear satellite tags, which will help the scientists see what kind of tag is best for a beluga body type. The use of satellite tags on belugas will help establish a baseline to monitor the Arctic and future climate changes.

What have you learned so far from your work with belugas?
They are extremely intelligent animals. They are very vocal and are so much fun to be around. I could give them tongue pats all day long!

What is the most interesting or exciting thing that has happened during your work with belugas?
I was involved with the transport of seven belugas from Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, to Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration in Connecticut. I flew in the plane and rode in the back of a truck while monitoring the well-being of the whales.

On Being a Kid...

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
Any book that had a marine mammal on the cover. I have loved the ocean since I was a little girl!

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
Science (of course--ha ha)!

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
A marine mammal trainer--that is all I ever wanted to do. I went to Sea World at the age of 9, and that was it--my path was chosen.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
I wish my educators had told me, "You can be whatever you set your mind to." Students need all the encouragement they can get. With the support of my family, my goal was to be a marine mammal trainer, and I succeeded!

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
My parents for never discouraging me when I chose this path as a career. Also, women that can do it all--being a GREAT wife, mother, and co-worker!

What do you like to do for fun?
I love to go to New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox games with my husband, Matt!  I love to dance and sing with my three little girls--Madison, Cadence, and Olivia!

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Never give up on your dreams--you can be anything you want to be in this world with determination and passion!

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic