Close Encounters at the Aquarium

Close Encounters at the Aquarium

Rae Whiteley 17 IL observing a trainer working with a beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium

As Juno flicks a powerful flipper and silently surfaces, his rounded melon and snout lead the way, the gently curved lips suggesting a beautifully goofy grin. As the beluga’s mouth opens wide for a fish provided by the trainer, Rae Whiteley 17 IL is right there, perched poolside, their pen in hand and sketchbook ready. In one fluid motion the whale responds to the trainer’s gesture, hugs the wall and dives back down, but in those few seconds of inter-species interaction the artist see a world of wonder worth illuminating through their work.

Whiteley had the privilege of devoting five weeks of the summer to interning at Mystic Aquarium, a vibrant marine research facility abuzz with families and other daily visitors eager to learn about and connect with marine animals. With the help of adjunct faculty member Dr. Lucy Spelman, a wildlife veterinarian and founder of Creature Conserve, the Illustration senior arranged the internship through veterinarian Dr. Allison Tuttle, vice president of Biological Programs and head of animal care and veterinary services at Mystic Aquarium. In addition, this summer Creature Conserve helped support internships for Derek Miranda 17 IL and Emily Schnall 16 IL with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

At Mystic Aquarium, Whiteley shadowed Tuttle and specific trainers who work closely with the organization's collection of seals, sea lions, whales, sharks, penguins, reptiles, frogs and fish. Sketching almost nonstop, they took copious visual notes about every interaction and found a welcomed response from staff members eager for their own work to be documented via drawings.

After weeks of intense observation—not to mention participation in the daily work of cleaning and feeding—Whiteley was awestruck at the level of the commitment from everyone who works at the aquarium. “It’s truly impressive how much you can accomplish with consistent care and an understanding of the animals,” they note, pointing out that trainers develop extraordinarily strong bonds with the individual animals in their care and are able to teach behaviors that allow for full cooperation during medical procedures. But the learning goes both ways as caregivers and animals learn to communicate with one another.

“Trainers need to be clear with their intentions,” Whiteley says, drawing an analogy between the “sort of innovation and way of connecting the dots” needed in both illustration and animal care and conservation. For instance, it “takes a lot of time and effort” to teach animals to respond to specific commands with reliable behavior. “You need to make sure the steps involved are coherent,” the artist points out. “In this way it's like illustration. You need to clearly get your message across so there can be an understanding, even if it's not always clear-cut.”

While observing and sketching, Whiteley kept an eye out for “moments of trust and understanding that showed the dedication both the animals and humans put into these two-way relationships.” Ultimately, they selected a dozen such scenes to develop as gouache paintings.

“There were some moments that were too beautiful not to include,” Whiteley explains, “like an octopus gently wrapping its tentacle around its trainer's wrist in greeting.” Their other paintings focus more on the high quality of care and other aspects of inter-species interaction, but all capture the emotion at the heart of the care.

Through both the observation phase and then stepping back to make a collection of paintings based on that, Whiteley realized that “you don’t want to anthropomorphize these animals by giving them human emotions, but the trainers really love them and there is definitely something there between them. Working with them helped me realize that it’s a two-way street and there's a lot of trust involved in what they do.”

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