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updated: 8/31/2014 6:38 AM

Elk Grove Village girl pursues dolphin trainer dream

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  • Living her dream, Mallory Mara swims with Winter, the dolphin whose story of rehabbing with a prosthetic tale was made into the movie, "Dolphin Tale." As a trainer at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, the Elk Grove Village native also works with Hope, the star of "Dolphin Tale 2."

      Living her dream, Mallory Mara swims with Winter, the dolphin whose story of rehabbing with a prosthetic tale was made into the movie, "Dolphin Tale." As a trainer at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, the Elk Grove Village native also works with Hope, the star of "Dolphin Tale 2."
    Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

  • At home in the water, associate marine mammal trainer Mallory Marra, who grew up in Elk Grove Village, says she builds wonderful relationships with the dolphins at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida.

      At home in the water, associate marine mammal trainer Mallory Marra, who grew up in Elk Grove Village, says she builds wonderful relationships with the dolphins at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida.
    Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

  • As a little girl growing up in Elk Grove Village, Mallory Mara dreamed of being a dolphin trainer. Now the 23-year-old does that professionally at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, the setting for the movies "Dolphin Tale" and "Dolphin Tale 2."

      As a little girl growing up in Elk Grove Village, Mallory Mara dreamed of being a dolphin trainer. Now the 23-year-old does that professionally at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, the setting for the movies "Dolphin Tale" and "Dolphin Tale 2."
    Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

  • Her job as an associate marine mammal trainer can be demanding, but Mallory Mara makes time to relax with her dolphin buddies at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, where the Elk Grove Village native works with Winter and Hope, the stars of the "Dolphin Tale 2" movie.

      Her job as an associate marine mammal trainer can be demanding, but Mallory Mara makes time to relax with her dolphin buddies at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, where the Elk Grove Village native works with Winter and Hope, the stars of the "Dolphin Tale 2" movie.
    Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

  • As a preschooler visiting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium during vacations in Florida, Elk Grove Village native Mallory Mara wanted to grow up to be a dolphin trainer. She not only landed her dream job, the 23-year-old works with Winter and Hope, the dolphin stars of the movie "Dolphin Tale 2."

      As a preschooler visiting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium during vacations in Florida, Elk Grove Village native Mallory Mara wanted to grow up to be a dolphin trainer. She not only landed her dream job, the 23-year-old works with Winter and Hope, the dolphin stars of the movie "Dolphin Tale 2."
    Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

  • Video: 'Dolphin Tale 2' trailer

  • Video: Trailer for 'Dolphin Tale'

  • Video: True story of dolphin Winter

 
 

As an idealistic young boy in rural Indiana, I vowed to grow up to be the starting second-baseman on the Chicago Cubs team that would win all those World Series championships -- a dream that is becoming less likely now that I'm well into my 50s.

As an idealistic young girl in Elk Grove Village, Mallory Marra vowed to be a professional dolphin trainer working at the world-renowned Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida -- a dream that she knocked out of the park.

Not only did Marra, 23, make good on her dream career, the associate marine mammal trainer works alongside movie stars. The movie, "Dolphin Tale 2," which opens Sept. 12, features Winter, a dolphin with a prosthetic tail whose story was told in the 2011 "Dolphin Tale" movie, and Hope, a baby dolphin who has bonded with Winter and has her story told in the sequel.

"People come from all over to meet with Winter and now Hope," says Marra, who says the dolphins' stories are even more amazing than the movies.

Having finished filming the original movie, the film crew was enjoying a party at the aquarium when the call came in that a baby dolphin was found in the shallows of a lagoon next to her dead mother.

"They were just partying and all of a sudden, boom, Hope came in, so they got to watch us in action," Marra says, explaining how the aquarium is equipped to rescue animals. "It happens, and it's all very natural."

Marra's arrival at the aquarium seems natural to her, as well.

The daughter of Salvatore and Linda Marra, she would make an annual pilgrimage to visit her grandparents in Florida.

"Every year, we'd go down there and hit the aquarium," remembers Mallory Marra, who was fascinated by the dolphin trainers. "I visited the aquarium and decided at 5 years old that that's exactly what I wanted to be."

Lots of little suburban girls dream of becoming a dolphin trainer, generally right after they give up the idea of being a princess. Many switch to goals of being a ballerina or professional soccer player, then comes the more realistic career of dinosaur discoverer or fashion designer. Eventually, they end up in cubicles with dreams of being able to tweet what they really think of their career choice.

Not Marra, who says her parents supported her dolphin dream.

"They were like, 'That's cute,' back then. But then, when I was in high school, they were like, 'Really?'," Marra says. "And I'd say, 'Yes, really.'"

At 14, she enrolled in a program at the aquarium, where she got to tag along with senior marine mammal trainer Abby Stone.

"She told me the steps I needed to take to be a dolphin trainer, and now her desk is next to mine," says Marra, who got hands-on experience as an intern.

"I just stuck Mallory in the water with Winter, and she helped me train for some of those underwater scenes you see in the first movie," Stone says. "Mallory reminds me of a little Pocahontas. She not only looks like a little Pocahontas, she's very sweet and very passionate."

Working as a lifeguard at the Elk Grove Park District's Rainbow Falls Waterpark, the teenage Marra also volunteered with animal groups, including a gig taking exotic animals to children's parties and educational events. In 2011, she was selected for an unpaid, four-month internship at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

"I just saved up a lot of money. I didn't have a car like lots of kids. I walked everywhere," Marra says.

"It was that fall that the movie ('Dolphin Tale') came out," says Marra, who witnessed an immediate increase in tourists at the aquarium. "We went from about 100 people (visitors) a week to 6,000 a week."

Fans now visit the aquarium to see Winter and Hope. Many more watch the dolphins on a live webcam. Marra's days start at either 6 a.m. or noon. "Once you get in, it becomes your life. But I love it. It's rewarding," Marra says. "I still get to go out and have fun, but never on weekends."

Weekends are reserved for time with her marine friends, such as Winter, whose tail was damaged by a crab trap and had to be amputated.

"She's very stubborn. I adore working with her," Marra says of the dolphin, whose injury prevents her from surviving in the wild. "She's very funny. She really does act like a star, but it's not because of the movie. She was born that way."

Human stars in "Dolphin Tale 2" include Morgan Freeman as the doctor who developed the artificial tail for Winter, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and a host of others.

"They are all great," Marra says. "But it was really cool meeting Bethany Hamilton."

Hamilton, a surfer whose left arm was bitten off by a shark in 2003 when she was 13, plays herself in the movie. The prosthetic tail for Winter has led to advancements in human prosthetics.

"As a result, we're able to help hundreds of people every day," says Marra, who hosts wounded veterans, people who have lost arms or legs and children born with missing limbs. "That's the coolest part."

Having gotten her associate degree in psychology at Harper College in Palatine, Marra is nearly finished with a bachelor's degree in psychology at Florida Tech University.

"Psychology is relevant to what we do every day," she says of her work with understanding the dolphins. "We use body language. We research behavior."

The shows are not scripted and include plenty of educational material about the animals. The nonprofit aquarium is an internationally known center for rescue, rehabilitation and release of animals, including sea turtles, sharks, otters, pelicans, stingrays and a host of other sea creatures.

"Honestly, we love all of them," Marra says, "But the dolphins are definitely my favorites."

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