’Lions and Dolphins and Mines, Oh My!

Alumna trains marine mammals for classified missions

’Lions and Dolphins and Mines, Oh My!

Melyssa Allen, '12, trains dolphins and sea lions to locate enemy divers and sea mines for the Navy.

She was just 4 years old when she made one of the biggest decisions of her life. It was a fateful trip to SeaWorld San Antonio, where she touched a dolphin and saw all of the park’s aquatic shows that sealed the deal. “I’m going to work with those animals when I grow up!” she declared to her parents. And, that’s exactly what Melyssa Allen, ’12, is doing.

As a marine mammal assistant trainer for Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a civilian technology company contracted by the U.S. Navy, Allen trains Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions for the Navy Marine Mammal Program.

The animals provide swimmer defense for the restricted waterway around the King’s Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia.

“Dolphins have a highly advanced biological sonar that they use for detection of objects, and sea lions have very well-developed, low-light visibility and highly sensitive hearing, which enable both animals to be extremely reliable to their tasked jobs,” Allen explains.

Because of their extraordinary senses, speed and agility in the water, the dolphins and sea lions are easily able to detect and “tag” enemy divers — who pose a threat to vessels, harbor facilities and people — with a special marker, so they can be tracked and apprehended by Naval authorities.

A typical day at work for Allen includes preparing the animals’ diets, performing maintenance on the program’s pens and boats, running practice drills with the animals and patrolling the waterway.

At the program’s main base in San Diego, dolphins and sea lions are also trained to help the Navy detect sea mines, which are sophisticated weapons used in the ocean and designed to sink ships, destroy landing craft, and critically injure or kill personnel.

The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program has a breeding program for its dolphins, while its sea lions come from other facilities, like SeaWorld, Allen explains. The program has also started taking in rescued sea lion pups deemed non-releasable by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, which are raised by the trainers for the program’s projects.

“The National Marine Mammal Foundation has played a very large role in the rescue and rehabilitation of the mass stranding of sea lion pups throughout the past year,” Allen says.

Although she’s only been in her current position since January 2013, Allen has had plenty of experience with animals. She’s been everything from a barn assistant at a horse farm to a pet trainer at PetSmart to an aquatic research intern with Disney’s Animal Programs.

While she was a student at UCF, Allen pursued her dream career by participating in Knights for Marine and Wildlife Conservation, Pre-Vet Society, Cognitive Sciences Lab, Applied Cognition and Technology Lab, and Physiological Ecology and Bioenergetics Lab.

She says earning both a B.S. in biology and psychology has allowed her to understand more about the animals with which she works — their physiology and anatomy through her biology background, and the different aspects of operant conditioning and behavior modification from her psychology background.

And, it was access to more opportunities to work with marine mammals in Florida (versus Texas) that drew Allen to UCF. Well, that and, she adds, “When I took the campus tour, I knew that I would be happiest spending my college career here.”

Fishing for More

Q. What’s the last thing you Googled?

A. My favorite guy from this season of “The Bachelorette,” Bryden Vukasin, who was in the Army during the Iraq war. I kind of have a thing for men in uniform — which works for me, since I work on a Navy base!

Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

A. I would like to pursue my doctorate degree and become a professor. (Looks like I might be coming back to UCF for grad school some day!)

Q. What profession would you not like to do?

A. Maintenance professional. I can’t stand having to unclog my shower drain.

Q. How do you manage stress?

A. Over the last year, I actually started to like running, so I began running more consistently and liking it more and more. When I found that racing in a 5K was getting easier and easier, I thought, why don’t I try a sprint triathlon? I like swimming a lot, and I’ve always liked spin class, so why not? Now, training for my races gives me a great outlet for stress! If you had told me this time last year that I would be a triathlete, I would have laughed out loud in your face, but I placed fourth in the novice division for my first race and third in the 20-24 female age group for my second race! And, I ended up placing second in my age group for the entire Jacksonville Triathlon Series that I participated in as well!

Q. Do you have any special/hidden talents?

A. I played the violin for nine years during school and also took ballet for six years.

Q. What or who inspires you?

A. Dawn Brancheau, whom I was lucky enough to work with during my internship at Shamu Stadium during the summer of 2009, has always been an inspiration to me in both my career and fitness. I always imagine how excited she would have been, just like the other trainers I know at SeaWorld, knowing that I finally made it to the field!

Q. What’s your life’s philosophy?

A. When someone tells you, “You can’t,” turn around and tell them, “Watch me!”

Read more stories about alumni at ucfalumni.com.