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14 June 2005

Jennifer Whitley Worked with Whales and Dolphins

JSU's Jennifer 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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