Whitley Worked with Whales and Dolphins
Whitley gets a kiss from Lolita, one of the killer whales she
worked with at the Miami Sea Acquarium. (Photo provided.)
By Dave Howell
JSU News Bureau
Jacksonville State University student Jennifer Whitley
has always loved dolphins. Growing up, she always knew that someday
she was going to work with these animals and learn to train them. Now,
more than a decade later, this JSU graduating senior recently had a
chance to make her dreams come true.
An exercise science major with a minor in psychology,
Whitley grew up studying the mysterious legends and fascinating facts
about dolphins, one of the world's most magnificent marine mammals.
She was able to experience these animals hands-on through a semester-long
internship with the Miami
Seaquarium, a marine park that features not only dolphins, but sharks,
seals, sea lions, killer whales and manatees as well.
Whitley's internship allowed her a unique opportunity
to take part in a program designed to teach student researchers about
the physiology, behavior and natural history of marine animals through
an experience not available in books or in a classroom.
Before she was even old enough to drive, Whitley's mother
adopted a Pacific Whiteside dolphin for her. Her adventure gave her
the chance to slip into a wetsuit and follow the trainers into the water
for a one-on-one interaction with the same type of dolphin that her
mother had adopted for her so many years ago.
As a student researcher, Whitley worked along side of
the Seaquarium staff and other interns in a variety of areas. She learned
the science behind their daily feeding routines, conducted behavioral
observations of the animals, and assisted with the training and data
analysis in the laboratory. Whitley said she was easily able to apply
her fundamental psychology training to marine animal behavior and cognition.
"They all have their own personalities," she said. "All
of what we did was basic operant conditioning. However, because they
are show animals, most days it seemed they were training us instead
of the other way around."
The majority of the sea animals Whitley worked with were
performers in the Miami Seaquarium's stunt show. The centerpiece of
the Seaquarium, and something that was one of the biggest treats to
Whitley, was working in the Whale & Dolphin Stadium.
This feature of the park is home to the killer whale Lolita
and her Pacific Whitesided dolphin companions. As an intern, she was
put to work motivating the crowd during the stunt show segments. While
the finned stars jumped, spun, tailwalked, and flipped, all choreographed
to music, Whitley provided the narration. She said one of the biggest
challenges for her was getting up in front of a live audience and interacting
with the audience.
"My friends and family who came to visit were all shocked
when they saw me up in front of the crowd getting people excited about
the show," she said. "That basically the exact opposite of my personality,
so it was a skill I had to learn."
Whitley's psychology professor, Dr. Stephen Bitgood, said
he was impressed by Jennifer's application of her psychology training
to working with marine animals.
"When most people think of psychology, they usually only
consider the clinical and counseling applications," he said. "What most
people don't realize is that a psychology background can be applicable
in all walks of life."
According to Bitgood, Whitley is the first student he's
had to seek out such and internship and apply her JSU psychology education
in this particular way.
"It's certainly an unusual and competitive internship,"
Bitgood said. "Lots of people want to work with dolphins and but not
everyone has the motivation and the competitiveness to make that dream
a reality. Jennifer took the initiative and sought this program out
on her own and she did a very good job."
Whitley said, "This is something I knew I wanted to do
every since I was a little girl.
"When I had the idea to apply what I learned in psychology
to working with dolphins, I just decided to go for it. Now that I know
what other programs are out there, this is definitely something I plan
to pursue more of."
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