College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Training Aqua Cops

Daniell Hepting’s real dream job is working with baby sea lions.

By Leslie friday

Daniell Hepting isn't a criminal, but she has played one. Among several swimmers treading the tea-colored waters of San Francisco Bay as part of a demonstration on the city's emergency response program last spring, one minute she was floating freely, the next a leg cuff was snapped on her thigh. The underwater “cop” who cuffed her? A California sea lion.

Hepting (CAS'98) trains baby sea lions at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, in San Diego, California. Animal trainer ranks high among dream jobs—like astronaut, rock star, or sports player—cited by kids on their when-I-grow-up list. Yet it wasn't this alum's original goal. “The seed was planted a long time ago,” says Hepting, when as a kid she saw dolphins in Pensacola, Florida. “But I didn't realize it was a real job.”

Daniell Hepting (CAS'98) with one of the California sea lions she trains for the Navy in San
Diego, California. Photo courtesy of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific

A New Orleans native, Hepting moved north to attend Boston University, where she majored in psychology. In 2001, she earned a master's degree in social work from Boston's Simmons College and then worked for two years as an adolescent psychiatric social worker at Dorchester's Caritas Carney Hospital.

On a whim, she started volunteering at the New England Aquarium in its animal interaction programs. Within a couple of years, she was a full-time aquarium staff member responsible for the care and training of Atlantic harbor seals, northern fur seals, and California sea lions.

She then discovered the Navy's San Diego program, where she has been at the Point Loma base since 2008. The Navy facility is home to bottle-nosed dolphins and California sea lions trained to work in one of three areas: underwater mine detection, identification and retrieval of underwater objects, and a diver defense program like Hepting helped demonstrate.

Sea lions are perfect candidates for the job, able to dive several hundred feet and see well in low light, and possessing acute directional hearing underwater.

Her “pupils” are all male, weigh about 80 pounds, and come from such places as SeaWorld Orlando or rescue and rehabilitation facilities. She trains them to let people brush their teeth, check their mouths and eyes, and draw their blood. They also become accustomed to everyday activities around the naval base, like riding on boats, walking on docks, and swimming around piers or vessels.

Once they master these skills, sea lions move on to train as aqua cops, experts in detecting and tagging submerged objects. They are perfect candidates for the job, able to dive several hundred feet and see well in low light, and possessing acute directional hearing underwater.

Sea lions in the diver defense program patrol piers to identify suspicious swimmers. Once a swimmer is spotted, the sea lions speed back to their handlers' boat and touch their noses to a paddle indicating a find. Trainers then give them a bite plate with a leg clamp attached. Within seconds, sea lions return to the intruder, affix the clamp, and book it back to the boat. “It's very quick,” says Ann Dakis, a public affairs specialist at the base. “They're in and out before you even know what happens.” Authorities in a nearby boat haul up the suspect by an attached cable. Dakis says they have a “100 percent success” rate.

If playing with and training baby sea lions sounds like a good gig, Hepting has advice on how to get there. Find an interesting marine mammal facility, start as an intern or volunteer, and apply for open jobs. Many places hire from within.

And yes, Hepting gets paid for this: “Animal training is a real job.”

A version of this article appeared in BU Today.