Justin Richard

Beluga Whale Trainer
Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration

General Career and Research Information…

What is your educational background?
I have a B.A. in Biology from Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
I did not plan on becoming a marine mammal trainer when I first got into college. My career goal was to teach marine biology at the collegiate level. So I started volunteering at the Mystic Aquarium during my freshman year of college (1999) in the education department. I quickly developed an interest in the animal care program at the Aquarium, and the following year I started volunteering with the beluga whales. In the field of marine mammal training, I found a way to combine my passions for science and teaching, and I began to seriously pursue a career in this field. I completed internships in the summers after my sophomore and junior years and was hired as a trainer when I graduated from college.

What are some of the different career opportunities are associated with the work that you do?
Marine mammal trainers serve as a link between the fascinating species in zoos and aquariums and the general public. This unique position allows marine mammal trainers to educate the public about the species that they work with, train the animals so veterinary staff can take better care of them, and train the animals to participate in research projects that allow us to learn about the animals in ways that could never be accomplished in the field. Different facilities will specialize in certain areas, such as public presentations, interactive programs, or research. I enjoy working at the Mystic Aquarium partly because of the opportunity to be involved in marine mammal research.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Don’t get discouraged if there is a branch of science that is difficult for you. If you’re not the best student in physics or calculus, that doesn’t mean that can’t still study science.

On Belugas…

How and where do you conduct your work on belugas? 
I train belugas at Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut. Our training methods are based on the science of operant conditioning, where behavior is modified by the consequences that follow it. More specifically, we use positive reinforcement to modify behavior. In other words, when the whales perform a behavior correctly, they are rewarded (with fish, toys, or interactions with their trainers). If they perform a behavior incorrectly, we simply do nothing! Everyone makes mistakes, which are part of the learning process. This method allows the training to remain interesting to the animals. When training a behavior, we take a complex final goal and break it down into small steps. We then teach each step so that one builds on another, allowing the whale to gradually learn the complex task. We learn the same way; teachers do not expect their students to understand algebra in a single day. You learn gradually, one skill at a time, until you are able to solve more complex problems.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work on belugas? 
Marine mammal training can be accomplished with simple tools along with a solid understanding of operant conditioning principles. The most important tool we use in training is probably our whistle. The whistle we use produces a high-pitch tone that allows us to communicate more effectively with the whales. It lets the whales know the precise instant that they have performed the correct behavior and that a reward is available. We call this signal a “bridge” because it bridges the gap in time between when the whales perform a correct behavior and when they receive reinforcement.

What research projects related to belugas have you worked on in the past?
I have been fortunate to train our belugas to participate in a number of research projects. One behavior that has been critical for several research projects is a fluke present. For this behavior, the whales are trained to present their tail to us so the veterinary staff can draw a blood sample from the vessels that are very close to the surface of the skin in the tail. The whales are trained to lie still while the sample is collected. With these samples, researchers have investigated the belugas’ immune system, stress, and the effects of pollution.

I have also been involved in training the belugas for research on beluga reproduction. We have a unique opportunity to study physiological processes throughout the year, allowing researchers to identify annual cycles of reproduction. We train our belugas to lie still for ultrasound exams. This involves placing a probe on the beluga that emits high frequency sound. The sound reflects off of the internal organs of the whale and back to the probe. These reflections are then translated into an image on the screen of the ultrasound machine. The vets can then “see” the internal organs of the whales and monitor changes in the ovaries of the females that would be impossible to monitor otherwise. It may sound silly, but I was also involved in training one of the female belugas to offer a voluntary urine sample. Researchers can then measure various hormones found in the urine to determine when the females ovulate. This information can then benefit breeding programs in zoos and aquariums.

Another interesting research project that I trained a whale to participate in was to measure its metabolic rate. By measuring the metabolic rate of the whale, we can understand how much energy a beluga requires to simply exist (resting metabolic rate), and how much energy a beluga needs to dive and hunt for food (active metabolic rate). From this information, researchers can better understand how much food a beluga must consume to allow for growth and reproduction. This information allows organizations to better manage fish stocks as well as to determine if belugas are threatened by a lack of prey in the wild.

What research projects related to belugas are you currently involved in?
Currently, I am studying reproductive seasonality in male beluga whales. With the collaboration of several other facilities, I am attempting to compare testosterone levels in beluga blood with ultrasound images of the reproductive organs. The ultrasound exams are conducted every other week throughout the whole year so we can detect seasonal changes in testes size. Each whale in the study has been trained to lie still for the ultrasound exams and for the blood collection. Without that training, this study would be extremely difficult to conduct.

What have you learned so far from your research?
It is still a little early to say for sure, but it appears that beluga testes change size seasonally. This phenomenon is common in seasonally breeding whales and dolphins, but has not yet been proven to occur in belugas.

Why is it important to study belugas?
Belugas are an important species to study because they are so closely tied to Arctic and sub-Arctic environments. These environments are critical to understand because they are uniquely affected by global climate change.

What threats are currently facing belugas?
Belugas face major threats from pollution and habitat destruction, overharvesting (in some parts of their range), and climate change.

How is climate change affecting belugas and their habitats?
Through a reduction in sea ice coverage, climate change is allowing humans to encroach upon beluga environment that was previously inaccessible. A warming trend could also make the Arctic more hospitable to temperate species of marine mammals that normally only spend a few months in Arctic waters. This may create competition for food and habitat between belugas and these other species. A reduction in sea ice might also lead to more killer whale predation through some parts of the belugas' range.

What is the most interesting or exciting thing that has happened during your research?
For me, the most exciting thing is seeing the behaviors that we work so hard to train be used to learn new things about this fascinating species.

What follow-up research related to belugas would you like to do in the future?
I would be interested to learn about correlations between beluga behavior and physiology. In other words, do physical changes in a beluga (such as hormone levels circulating in the blood) affect how they behave?

What actions can kids take to help protect belugas and their habitats?
Even though belugas live far away from most people, they are still affected by what we do as individuals. We can all do our part to slow climate change by taking the environment into consideration when we make decisions about our daily lives. Small contributions by individuals, such as recycling or conserving energy, add up with the millions of other small contributions made by others to have a real impact on the health of Arctic environments.

On Your Job...

What do you like the best about your job?
The best part of my job is being able to teach the general public about belugas. At the Mystic Aquarium, we offer people the opportunity to have up-close experiences with animals they might otherwise never see. Our hope is that these experiences will cause people to have a greater appreciation for these animals and therefore have a greater desire to help conserve them and their environments.

What do you like the least about your job?
The hardest part of being an animal trainer is when one of the animals you’ve worked closely with passes away. We are able to build close working relationships with these animals based on a strong reinforcement history and untold hours of time spent earning their trust. It’s different than losing a pet because we don’t live with the animals or treat them like pets, but it can still be very difficult.

On the Arctic...

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Arctic?
Arctic animals of every species have their own set of adaptations that enable them to be successful in the Arctic. I am still amazed by the fact that warm-blooded animals such as beluga whales can live in such a harsh environment.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in protecting the Arctic?
You can make a difference! Because the Arctic is affected by global climate change, there are opportunities every day to make decisions that can help conserve Arctic environments, even if they seem so far away. Become active in conservation efforts yourself, and help others (especially adults!) understand how easy it is to make a difference.

On Being a Kid...

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why? 
I enjoyed reading mystery novels because I liked to try guessing “whodunit” before the end of the book. I also liked reading science fiction and anything about dinosaurs or prehistoric animals. I was always amazed by the fact that human history is such a small blink of time compared to the history of life in general.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school? 
My 8th grade physical science class was my favorite in middle school. It was the first time I remember regularly conducting experiments in class.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a paleontologist. I still have not grown out of my childhood fascination with dinosaurs!

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
Enjoy being a kid and don’t be in a rush to grow up! There will be plenty of time to have responsibility when you are an adult!

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
Definitely my parents. I admire their values, work ethic, and devotion to their friends and family.

What do you like to do for fun?
I enjoy spending time with my wife, chasing squirrels with my dog, reading, and watching the Red Sox.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Becoming an animal trainer can be a challenging career path. This field is very competitive, but my advice to aspiring trainers is to not get discouraged! In general, people who are truly dedicated to getting a job as a trainer are more successful. Work hard in school, develop useful skills such as public speaking, swimming, and scuba diving, and be willing to take whatever opportunities come your way. This job is truly rewarding and is well worth the effort!

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