Surfing Dolphins Inspire a Career
A Childhood Beach Vacation Leads Trainer to Mammal Program
While vacationing on a Del Mar, Calif., beach, a young Mark Xitco was fascinated as he watched dolphins play in the waves. A passion was born and a career path set for a boy who today serves as head of the scientific and veterinary support branch of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego.
At the Navy lab, Xitco works with a research team that trains dolphins and sea lions for naval tasks such as mine hunting.
This elite team has traveled the world conducting training and missions, including playing a key role in ensuring the first hospital ship could safely enter an Iraqi port in 2003 just weeks after the war started. Parts of the team spent more than two years in the Persian Gulf protecting Navy ships and sailors.
"Our job is not only to keep our own teammates safe but also sailors and Marines," Xitco says. "It is very rewarding, and it is a privilege to be part of the program."
A Navy Directive mandates the "highest quality care" for the mammals. "Nothing is gold-plated, shiny, or chrome, but the Navy provides everything we need to take care of the animals to the best possible standards," Xitco says. "Literally when it comes to what we need to take care of the animals we want for nothing. As a marine biologist, that is an amazing position to be in."
Xitco's early path to the program included working summers at Sea World in San Diego, where he was responsible for the sound system during shows at the stadium. Some of the trainers from back then are now part of the Navy program. "Sometimes I wonder if they look at me and say, ‘Weren't you the kid who played the music for us?'" he says with a laugh.
After receiving a double degree in marine biology and psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Xitco moved to Hawaii. There he earned a master's degree from the University of Hawaii while serving as an assistant to Dr. Louis M. Herman, one of the world's foremost dolphin researchers.
At a trainers' conference in New Orleans, he was asked to join the team establishing a marine research center at Disney's Epcot Center in Florida. At Epcot Xitco was using a large underwater keyboard to conduct symbol research with the dolphins. It quickly became apparent that, because of their speed, the mammals required a bigger space for meaningful testing. "I needed something larger than the world's largest aquarium," says Xitco, who also holds a doctorate degree from Southern Methodist University.
In 1996 he accepted a civilian position with the Navy and now calls himself a lifer. "Around here, the work is so rewarding and fascinating that we have folks who stay their entire careers," says Xitco. "I am lucky enough to having grown up and gotten to do what I wanted to do."