By Katie Scarvey
Imagine if after simply doing your job, people told you things like “I can die tomorrow and be happy.”
Amber Heavner gets to hear such words frequently. Oh, and as an additional bonus, she gets to live in the Bahamas.
Amber, 28, works for Unexco’s “The Dolphin Experience,” training dolphins and facilitating interactions between dolphins and humans.
The daughter of Kathy and Tony Heavner of Faith, Amber graduated from East Rowan High school in 1997.
She visited Sea World several times as a child and loved watching the killer whale show.
“That would be pretty cool to do,” she thought, as she observed the trainers.
After high school, she went to Long Island University in New York to study psychobiology. At the time there were only two schools in the country with the major. Now, Amber says, many schools offer it.
The interdisciplinary major focuses on behavior, both human and animal. Graduates can work either with people or animals. Many go on the vet school after graduation, Amber says. Others take the human route and may pursue advanced degrees in counseling.
Amber was interested in animals and during college got some valuable experience volunteering with the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. Foundation volunteers rescue injured animals, such as seals or sea turtles, and rehabilitate them and then release them. Volunteers also do necropsies on dead animals, such as pilot whales that have floated up on the beach, to determine the cause of death by taking blood and tissue samples.
After college, Amber worked for the Riverhead Foundation over the summer and then took a job at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport Miss, where she spent a year working with the sea lion and dolphin shows.
She then moved to Cancun, Mexico, in December 2003 to do an internship in advanced marine mammal training at a water park called Atlantida, where she worked with the water park guests as they interacted with the dolphins.
After a stint at an aquarium in New Jersey, working with penguins and other birds, Amber took her current job with Unexco in the Bahamas. July will mark her three-year anniversary working with The Dolphin Experience there.It wasn’t a tough decision.
“New Jersey … Bahamas,” Amber says, palms up, shifting imaginary weights. She also liked that the Bahamas job was year-round.
She loves introducing the public to the joy of dolphins. It’s better, of course, when people listen to her and follow the rules. Drunk people on spring break are the most likely to ignore them, she says.
One big no-no is touching a dolphin’s face. Dolphins have varying tolerances for people, but they typically don’t like having hands on their faces.
The busiest time of the year for Amber is right now ó March through May, which is when the spring break tourists pour in.
The first time Amber worked with dolphins was with a research project at Dolphins Plus in Key Largo in 1999. In the study, a hydrophone was placed in the water and the whistling noises the dolphins made were recorded. Researchers were seeking to determine which activities ó a structured swim with humans, a snorkeling program with humans, or free time in the water ó the dolphins enjoyed most. The noises they make are normally associated with pleasurable activities.”We found that they like interacting with the people,” Amber says. “We think they enjoy it.”
That conclusion has been confirmed in Amber’s current job. The dolphins will often try to break through an enclosure to get to guests, Amber says, because they like the social interaction.
Amber’s favorite dolphin is Indy, which is short for Independence ó he was born on the Fourth of July. Although he’s actually 13, Indy ó who has some facial markings that look like drool ó looks like he’s 8, she says, with his small body and big freckled head.
Indy, Amber says, is “a slower dolphin” who perhaps could be said to have the dolphin form of ADHD. He gets frustrated easily and needs a lot of patience, and it often “takes a while to get him to do something,” she says. She likes the challenge.
She’s training Indy to perform five behaviors, she says.
Amber has learned to understand his moods quite well. Indy is known to grunt and put his head under the water when he’s ready to move on to a new activity, she says. She pays attention because her experience with animals has taught her that boredom can lead to aggressive behavior.
When she is working with the guests, she has to be attentive to behavior she calls “precursors” ó signs that signal other behaviors that are undesirable.
Recently, one of the guests didn’t listen to Amber’s warnings about not touching Indy’s face, and when that happened, Indy looked at Amber, as if to confirm that she was aware of the guest’s bad behavior.
When she sees such cues, she calls him back with a bell so that he doesn’t act aggressively toward the guests ó which would probably be to nudge them.
Amber is teaching Indy to do a back dive, and she’s also working on a move she calls “Tigger bouncing.” She’s already taught Indy to do a breech dive, in which he comes up out of the water and then lands on his side.
She loves to see the dolphins get excited when they learn something new, she says.
Her least favorite part of her job is unloading 50,000 pounds of fish from a trailer into the facility’s freezer every three months. The dolphins go through hundreds of pounds of fish a day.
She’s also not crazy about “fish kitchen” ó the daily sorting of the fish to make sure that each one is fresh and undamaged, with skin and eyeballs intact.
She gets tired of the smell.
“I don’t eat fish,” Amber says.
“I smell fish all day and I don’t want to eat something I smell all day.”
Although she likes working with the guests, she says she’s just as happy when she’s alone working with the animals.
She doesn’t make a big salary, she says, but she earns enough to rent a house with an ocean view. She doesn’t have a car and walks and bikes wherever she goes.
She has two dogs that were Bahamian strays she says ó or in the local lingo, “pot cakes.” Pot cake is the crusty stuff burned on the bottom of a pot that might be fed to dogs.
She likes to take her own pot cakes out to the beach, and she loves to ride jet skis when she can.
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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