Recent Findings

Photo by Erika Dold

In 2001, marine mammal workers and volunteers were asked to participate in a survey designed to investigate the type and severity of injuries and illnesses experienced during their work with marine mammals. This web site contains selected results from that survey, in addition to information about specific diseases for which workers may be at risk of exposure and infection.

A total of 483 researchers, rehabilitators, and workers associated with zoos, aquaria and swim-with-the-dolphin programs participated in the survey. 

The largest proportion of respondents identified research as the primary field through which they contacted marine mammals; the second most frequently reported field being rehabilitation.

Out of the 483 respondents 308 (64%) reported having had an injury or illness during the time they worked with marine mammals; more than half, 261, believed their illness or injury was due directly to marine mammal contact.  

Reported health events were categorized as trauma, skin ailments, respiratory illnesses, and prolonged malaise.  Respondents were asked to provided a description and diagnosis of their ailments

Health problems due to marine mammal contact as reported by marine mammal workers participating in a survey between Dec. 2001-Sept. 2002. (N=483)

(Including deep wounds (77), bites (38), wounds requiring stitches (26), and fractures(10))

SKIN Ailments 75

Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae

Erysipeloid infections b 

Mycoplasma spp. b 

Other bacterial infections a

(Including Clostridium perfringens, Staphylococcus aureus, Mycobacterium marinum, Corynebacter spp., Pseudomonas spp., Vibrio spp., Pseudomona spp.) 



Inflammation post necropsy

Contact dermatitis 

Non-specific rashes 












Tuberculosis pneumonia


Non-specific irritation




PROLONGED Malaise  9
Brucellosis b 



Tuberculosis pneumonia a 

Systemic affects after traumatic injury
(no specific etiology given) 






a Agent was cultured from patient
b Agent was suspected in diagnosis

  • More then a half of all respondents, 251, reported having suffered a traumatic injury.  

Skin Ailments

  • Twenty-three percent (113/483) reported they had developed a skin reaction during their time in contact with marine mammals; while 75 reported their skin rash/reaction was resultant from marine mammal contact. 
    • Fifty-five respondents, nearly 1 in 10, reported specifically having had seal finger.
    • While, 36 reported acquiring a skin reaction following a marine mammal bite.

Respiratory Illnesses

  • Less than 1 in 5 people (18%) reported a respiratory illness during their time in contact with marine mammals.
    • Of those, about one-fifth (20%) believed their illness to be a result of direct marine mammal contact.
Prolonged Malaise
  • Only 30 out of the 483 participants reported suffering a prolonged malaise, and only 9 believed their illness was a result of marine mammal contact.

Risk Factors
  • People who worked with marine mammals for more than 50 days per year (i.e. more than once per week) were 23 times more likely to experience injury, and nearly twice as likely to experience a skin reaction than those with less marine mammal exposure time.
    • Those exposed to marine mammals for more than 5 years were close to 19 times more likely to experience injury, and nearly twice as likely to experience a skin reaction.
  • People who worked with live marine mammals were 7 times more likely to be injured.
  • People who either came in contact with marine mammal excretions and vomit  or tissue and blood samples were three times more likely to experience injury, 
    • Those who either contacted marine mammal excretions and vomit or were involved in cleaning and repairing enclosures and equipment used in the care of marine mammals were twice as likely to experience a skin reaction.

To find out more about the specific diseases mentioned on this page, click here.

For a PDF copy of the survey, click here.

For a PDF copy of the entire report, click here.

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