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North Hall teen travels around the world to work with dolphins, whales

Phillips devotes time to studying for career

POSTED: July 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.
/For The Times

In December, Tabitha Phillips spent four days helping in the fish kitchens and performing in shows at Ocean Adventure in the Philippines. She plans to return there next month to train with Gail Laule, who helped train the killer whale star of the "Free Willy" movies.

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Tabitha Phillips does not remember the day she gained her affection for killer whales, but she knows the 1993 hit "Free Willy" had something to do with it.

The film came out in movie theaters before Phillips was a year old, but made it to cable television by the time she was 3, and Phillips saw the flick for the first time with her dad.

She does not remember the experience, she only knows it as her dad recounted it to her.

"He said at the end of the movie after ‘Free Willy' jumped over the jetty ... that I was crying. And he asked me why I was crying and I said ‘Willy's gone,'" Phillips said.

While she does not remember it, Phillips' aspirations to work closely with killer whales and dolphins can trace back to that moment.

Today, Phillips, who will spend the next month training with one of the trainers of the killer whale star of "Free Willy," knows exactly how many killer whales live in captivity and the number of parks in the world that have them. She has visited a few of them more than once. She only loves reading when she has a book about dolphins or killer whales, one of the top predators of the ocean.

As far as Phillips knows, her love for dolphins and killer whales has always been with her.

"I've always loved them," Phillips said. "I have never known anything else."

Phillips, a 15-year-old North Hall High student, does not just display her love for marine mammals such as killer whales and dolphins with posters or T-shirts bearing their likenesses, dreaming to someday see one. Instead, Phillips is traveling to the ends of the earth for her love - to the Philippines - and doing everything she can to make herself ready for a career as a marine mammal trainer, going as far as getting experience early, taking the right courses, getting over the smell of dead fish and joining drama and the swim team to prepare her for the difficult tests ahead.

In her first year of high school, Phillips aced ninth- and 10th-grade science classes and admits she was the smartest student in both classes. Phillips, an honors student who will take two advanced placement courses when she returns to 10th grade in the fall, knows her education will help her stay in the marine sciences field long after she is physically able to swim in tanks with killer whales and dolphins.

"I love science, I don't care what science it is," Phillips said. "...Eventually, I'm going to have to do something else, so I was thinking about getting a bachelor's in zoology ... or marine biology."

"I am so focused on that... school, I'm really good at school, and anything I think will help me become a trainer, I just go all out."

This weekend, she completed her scuba diving training, and she will spend the month of July at Ocean Adventure, an open-water marine park in the Philippines, training with Gail Laule. Laule helped train Keiko, the killer whale star of the "Free Willy" movies.

In the future, Phillips wants to learn Spanish, so that maybe one day she would be employable at a marine park in the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory off the coast of northwest Africa.

"I want to be as close as possible to these animals and learn as much as I can," Phillips said.

Her "career" as an aspiring marine mammal trainer began with her first trip to Sea World. When she was 10, Phillips was chosen to be the child who went in the tank during a Shamu show.

She later returned to SeaWorld camp in California, and in December, Phillips spent four days helping in the fish kitchens, carrying fish buckets and performing in shows at Ocean Adventure in the Philippines.

Once there, Phillips met another marine animal, the South American sea lion. She realized she was not as comfortable working with the sea lion as she was with dolphins.

But she was determined to overcome her unease when she returned home, and, using the signals she observed other trainers use in the Philippines, Phillips dedicated herself to training her handful of a dog, an Australian shepherd-huskie mix named Mina.

Training Mina, Phillips said, will help her when she encounters the sea lion again because the animals have similar characteristics and respond to similar signals and high-frequency whistles.

"I wanted to be a really good trainer... now, I mean, I feel really confident (about training)," she said.

Most everything Phillips works on is for the sole reason of fulfilling her dreams "to get to work with (killer whales) every day, and to be in the tanks and get to show that to people is so amazing, because you get to share your passion," she said.

Pursuing her love for marine mammals has taught Phillips more than the physicalities of training the animals. Phillips has also discovered that studying animals helps her understand human psychology. She understands the conditioning methods she uses on dolphins are often used to train behavior in human children.

"If you understand your own species, and how to train your brain to do something, then it's easier to train an animal," Phillips said.

Phillips realizes she's not like most of her peers.

"I get a lot of stuff about people kind of making fun of me, but I just deal with it because it's not my fault that I like something, and they don't think that's normal," she said.

"I wish sometimes that I could be a regular high schooler ... or just go out with somebody and stuff... but it's like, it's high school - it's not going to last forever," Phillips said.




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